According to social identity theory, out-group derogation is one of the ways available to group members for boosting their low self-esteem (Rubin & Hewstone, 1998; Turner & Reynolds, 2001; Tajfel & Turner, 1979). According to Adorno (1963/1997), Fromm (1964/2010, 1973), and status politics theorists (Gusfield, 1963; Hofstadter, 1965; Lipset & Raab, 1973), out-group derogation is likely to occur in conditions that undermine self-esteem and increase narcissistic identification with the in-group i.e., collective narcissism.
Collective narcissism is a belief that the in-group is exceptional and entitled to privileged treatment, but it is not sufficiently recognized by others (see our review for a summary of research on collective narcissism Golec de Zavala, Dyduch-Hazar & Lantos, 2019). In line with proposals from Adorno, Fromm and status politics theorists, studies have repeatedly linked collective narcissism to out-group derogation. However, contrary to these proposals, studies have also suggested a null relationship between self-esteem and collective narcissism (Golec de Zavala, Peker, Guerra, & Baran, 2016). In addition, narrative reviews and a meta-analysis indicated that, on average, the relationship between self-esteem and out-group derogation is close to zero, thus contradicting predictions of social identity theory (Abrams & Hogg, 1988; Martiny & Rubin, 2016; Rubin & Hewstone, 1998).
We hypothesized and found that self-esteem was linked to out-group derogation indirectly, via collective narcissism. This indirect relationship was obscured by the positive overlap between collective narcissism and in-group satisfaction: a belief that the in-group and one’s membership in it are of a high value (also labelled collective self-esteem, Leach et al., 2008). The results of cross-sectional, longitudinal, and experimental studies converged in indicating that the unique association between self-esteem and collective narcissism was negative, whereas the unique association between self-esteem and in-group satisfaction was positive. In all studies, the positive overlap between collective narcissism and in-group satisfaction obscured the negative relationship between collective narcissism and self-esteem. Indeed, the negative link between self-esteem and collective narcissism could only be observed when the positive overlap between collective narcissism and in-group satisfaction was partialled out, which explains why previous work found no correlation between self-esteem and collective narcissism. The association between low self-esteem and out-group derogation does exist. However, it is indirect, mediated by collective narcissism, and occurs only when collective narcissism does not overlap with in-group satisfaction.
Collective narcissism and in-group satisfaction are alternative beliefs that people may hold about the social identities they share. Confirmatory and exploratory factor analyses conducted on items measuring collective narcissism and in-group satisfaction indicate a two factorial latent structure, consistent with the claim that collective narcissism and in-group satisfaction are distinguishable and correspond to different beliefs about the in-group. The key to understanding why collective narcissism and in-group satisfaction have distinct associations with self-esteem and out-group derogation is that they are related to distinct personal motivations for engaging with the in-group.
Collective narcissism and low self-esteem
Adorno (1997) and Fromm (1964/2010, 1973) implied that undermined self-esteem motivates collective narcissism. Our findings support the conclusion that low self-esteem becomes tied to collective-narcissist resentment over the in-group’s unrecognized importance. Collective narcissism represents an attempt to compensate for low self-esteem. A historical example of a social context that undermined self-esteem and led to the collective narcissistic belief becoming a group norm was the spread of fascist ideology after the Great Depression of the 1930s. According to Frankfurt School theorists, the rapid expansion of the capitalist economy and then the Great Depression undercut the stability of the traditional bases with respect to which people assessed their self-esteem. This was followed by widespread support for the fascist narrative about national superiority and entitlement.
The recent and prevalent wave of collective narcissism present in rhetoric of populist parties and politicians can also be linked to analogous economic and societal conditions (Federico & Golec de Zavala, 2017; Golec de Zavala, Guerra, & Simão, 2017 ). A detailed analysis of the populist message indicates that the collective-narcissist belief about the lost grandeur of the in-group lies at the core of populist beliefs (Golec de Zavala et al., 2019). In line with results linking undermined self-esteem to collective narcissism, the increase in support of populism in Europe can be linked to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and the broader societal changes in Western countries that led to empowerment of many previously disenfranchised groups such as immigrants, ethnic and cultural minorities, women, and the LGBT+ community (Inglehart & Norris, 2016). The financial crisis caused many people to lose economic status to which they felt entitled. Broader societal changes towards greater equality between social groups produced a sense of lost group-based privilege. Such conditions are likely to engender uncertainty about self-esteem and produce a motivation, shared by some group members, to use the in-group instrumentally as a means of enhancing self-esteem.
When the in-group is used to restore undermined self-esteem, the self cannot be separated from the in-group, and group members invest in demanding that their in-group is granted special recognition and treatment by others. Thus, individuals whose self-esteem is undermined may become inclined towards collective-narcissist beliefs about the in-group. They may demand privileged treatment and recognition of their in-group to compensate for their personal shortcomings. Demanding special treatment for the in-group, they do not shy away from derogating out-groups.
The results from our longitudinal studies indicate that this instrumental investment in the in-group’s greatness to compensate for undermined self-esteem is not successful. Although low self-esteem consistently predicted stronger collective-narcissist beliefs weeks later, holding collective-narcissist beliefs about the in-group generally did not reliably predict higher self-esteem later. What links collective narcissism to high self-esteem is in-group satisfaction. Our research emphasizes the importance of in-group satisfaction in buffering the negative intergroup consequences of low self-esteem.
The importance of in-group satisfaction
The results of our cross-sectional, longitudinal, and experimental studies were remarkably consistent, indicating that the relationship between self-esteem (trait, state, and boosted) and in-group satisfaction is positive. Moreover, the results of longitudinal studies suggested that the positive relationship between self-esteem and in-group satisfaction is reciprocal. These results corroborate previous findings that individuals with high self-esteem project their positive self-evaluation onto their in-groups (Gramzow & Gaertner, 2005; Van Veelen et al., 2011), and that positive social identification increases self-esteem and positively contributes to mental health (Cruwys et al., 2014; Jetten et al., 2014). These results align with previous work indicating that individuals with high self-esteem feel in a position to act on behalf of their in-group to enhance its positive evaluation (Amiot & Sansfaçon, 2011; Jans et al., 2012; Legaut & Amiot, 2014).
Such findings concur broadly with Erikson’s (1968) theorizing that acting on behalf of one’s community is a motivation endorsed by people at advanced levels of ego development characterized by stable self-esteem and autonomy. A historical example of such a process is the successful change in the construal of national identity brought about by leaders of the Solidarity movement that hastened the overthrow of the Communist regime in Poland. Leaders of this movement—‘entrepreneurs’ of a new national identity (Reicher, Hopkins, Levine, & Rath, 2005)—exhibited stable self-esteem and autonomy, resisting retribution, in the name of improving the group that they held in high esteem (Kuroń, 2011).
The positive overlap with in-group satisfaction mitigates collective narcissistic intergroup hostility. In the longer run, capitalizing on this overlap may offer a route to improving the negative emotionality that underlies collective narcissism towards stronger positivity and prosociality. Participating in positively valued in-groups may raise self-esteem following the logic of ‘upward going spiral’ characterizing positive emotionality: Positive emotions produce more positive emotions and strengthen the ability to effectively alleviate the influence of negative emotions and to maintain life satisfaction, even during hardship and adversity (Fredrickson, 2001). Thus, positive attitudes toward one’s in-group membership can buffer threats to and lift individual self-esteem. In consequence, it can also lower collective narcissism. Conversely, situations that decrease the overlap between collective narcissism and in-group satisfaction are likely to make the indirect link between undermined self-esteem and out-group derogation or intergroup aggression via collective narcissism stronger. When collective narcissism becomes a normative narration about the in-group’s identity and the role of in-group satisfaction is marginalized (e.g., via centralization of power or detachment from local community), individuals who were made uncertain about their self-esteem are more likely to turn against other groups like minorities, immigrants, or refugees, because they are motivated to protect the in-group in whose grandiosity their self-esteem is invested.
For more details please read our recent paper in press in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
For more details about collective narcissism please read our recent review of research on collective narcissism from Advances in Political Psychology.