How can research on collective narcissism help to build narratives of unity?
Agnieszka Golec de Zavala, Goldsmiths, University of London
Talk at the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies hosted by NYU Center on International Cooperation Workshop on Narratives & Messaging to Build Unity and Promote Solidarity for Just and Inclusive Societies in Madrid, 7-9 of September 2022
I am a psychological researcher and my focus is different from that of political scientists or historians who consider particular circumstances of each group narration of hate. Psychologists study what they believe are universal mechanisms that govern human behaviour, mechanisms of group hate that generalize across specific situations. We look at what people in those situations have in common. I study people’s beliefs about their groups and how they shape what the diverse context of group hate has in common, not what is specific and peculiar about various divided societies but what they have in common. And what I believe they have in common is the presence of a narcissistic narrative about the group. I do qualitative research. I define, measure, and compare concepts. I can see how collective narcissism as a belief combines with other beliefs to form an antagonistic mindset.
Collective narcissism is not the same as individual narcissism. Individual narcissism is much discussed in science and in popular discourses. In the simplest terms, it means self-aggrandizement, excessive self-love, and entitlement. Narcissus is commonly portrayed as a boy intensely studying his reflection in a pond, enamoured by it and oblivious to the world around him. This image summarizes self-absorption and lack of critical reflection about the world associated with narcissism. Collective narcissism is a belief about a group that people who belong to it hold. This belief people hold with a relative degree of certainty and communicate to other group members to seek its validation. The more such a belief gets confirmed and validated by other group members the more it may become normative and defining for the whole group.
I believe research on collective narcissism in divided societies can help us recognize when public figures advocate collective narcissism and spin a narrative about a certain ‘us’ that has been and continues to be wronged, not recognized, and not respected by vaguely defined ‘them’, ‘them’ that can always be extended. Collective narcissism research can help us predict and understand the societal consequences of such narrations in forming an antagonistic mindset and narratives of intergroup hate. Based on the collective narcissism research we can also understand in what conditions group members become susceptible to such narrations, how they spread and how they can be weakened by counter-narratives that reduce the narcissistic aspects of identification with groups.
Collective narcissism is a belief that people hold about groups that are important to them. So first people identify with groups, and decide membership in this group is important to them. They also evaluate the group, think about it in good terms, and hold it in high esteem. Collective narcissism is excessive group esteem that demands constant validation by others. Collective narcissism is a belief that the group is exceptional but not sufficiently recognized by the external world. As I said before I measure collective narcissism and most if not all empirical psychological on collective narcissism to date was constructed by the scale I proposed.
Psychological research identified a cluster of other beliefs and attitudes that accompany national collective narcissism. These are prejudice towards national minorities, ethnic, sexual or religious, sexism, the belief that the nation is threatened by the hostility of others, conspiratorial thinking, and specific conspiracy theories inventing the nation’s enemies within and outside. Collective narcissism is associated with the coercive pursuit of group goals over and above those of others sold as national defense. Collective narcissism is associated with personal vulnerability and deficits in emotion regulation and a lack of positive emotions.
Collective narcissism attracts in times of uncertainty when self-esteem and sense of control are undermined when people are threatened. In those conditions, group members become susceptible to divisive leaders who spin narrations about the group’s/nation’s unrecognized greatness. Collective narcissism contributes to the polarization of societies and polarized societies with their inherent uncertainty and exaggeration of threats enhance collective narcissism. Collective narcissism as a belief explains why others are enemies, why they are against ‘us’ but at the same time escalates our own animosity towards them.
It is important to remember that collective narcissism is usually more pronounced in disadvantaged groups. In those groups groupness is an ever-salient factor because members of those groups experience discrimination because of their group membership, often they also strive to be able to express group’s identity and demand equal treatment. We should remember that Narcissus looks into a mirror. This also means recognition of one’s identity. In disadvantaged groups (among women, ethnic or sexual minorities) collective narcissism is associated with a strive to advance social justice and quality with whatever means possible. In advantaged groups, collective narcissism is also associated with acceptance of any means to advance their group goals, but members of advantaged groups have also institutions of state and ownership of national narration on their side. Thus, collective narcissism in disadvantaged groups motivates the group members to act and fight for social change, in advantaged groups it motivates them to further advance existing privileges and inequalities.
The conflict between advantaged and disadvantaged groups is not always undesirable. Once it is expressed it may be cooperatively solved. Conflict becomes a problem when both sides push for the realization of their own goals over and above those of the other side. Collective narcissists in advantaged groups advocate equality and social justice, protest and act collectively on behalf of their group, and express and experience prosocial emotions that bound them to others. At least in disadvantaged groups those factors can reduce antagonism typically associated with collective narcissism of advantaged groups and with national collective narcissism. However it is important to remember that when pushed too many collective narcissists in disadvantaged groups are the most likely to respond with violence.
Collective narcissism helps to clearly express that the goals of my disadvantaged group are antagonistic to those of the advantaged group that oppresses my group. This antagonism once expressed can be treated and reduced but it can be also escalated if the oppressing group coercively uses its power and advantage. Narratives about non-narcissistic group love and compassion for their members, narratives that spin self-transcendent emotions such as gratitude, compassion, or awe can reduce the link between collective narcissism and intergroup animosity.