2019-05-17 16:00:00 | Categories: Theory

Why is collective narcissism so robustly associated with conspiracy thinking?

Conspiracy theories are explanatory beliefs positing that a group of people plots in secret against one and one’s ingroup (van Prooijen & van Lange, 2014). Examples of such theories include the belief that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were an inside job; that autism is caused by vaccines and the pharmaceutical industry is withholding this information for financial gain; that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese; that Barack Obama was not born in the US, etc.  In Poland during the last decade, the primarily conspiracy theory revolved around the belief there was Russian involvement in the plane crash that killed the Polish president, the first lady, and almost one hundred government officials in Smolensk, Russia in 2010.

Despite their varied content, a tendency to believe in conspiracy theories seems to be driven by the same generic tendency to form suspicions about a malevolent collective agent intending to harm and undermine the ingroup (e.g. generic conspiracist beliefs, Brotherton, French & Pickering, 2013; conspiratory mindset, Imhoff & Bruder, 2014; conspiratorial predispositions, Uscinski, Klofstad & Atkinson, 2016). Conspiracy theories are meaning-making activities biased by a motivation to seek meaningful patterns (van Proojven et al., 2018). The seeking of patterns is additionally biased by a tendency to see events as caused by intentional agents and a tendency to attribute big causes to big events (van Proojven, 2011). Conspiratorial thinking is different from paranoia, which typically revolves around suspicions of malicious actions aimed at an individual. Conspiratorial thinking typically assumes that a hostile group plots against the ingroup, not specifically the individual (Abalakina-Paap et al., 1999). 

A tendency to uphold specific conspiracy beliefs as well as a general conspiratorial predisposition has been linked to collective narcissism, a belief that the ingroup is exceptional and entitled to privileged treatment, but it is not sufficiently recognized by others (Golec de Zavala, Dyduch-Hazar, & Lantos, 2019). In several studies, we also demonstrated that positive in-group identification (labelled in-group satisfaction and defined as a belief that the in-group and one’s membership in it are of high value) (Leach et al., 2008), was negatively associated with conspiratorial thinking (for review see Golec de Zavala et al., 2019).

In an initial investigation (Golec de Zavala & Cichocka, 2012), we hypothesized and found that collective narcissism was linked to anti-Semitism in Poland because it predicted the support for the conspiracy stereotype of the Jewish minority, which portrays this outgroup as particularly dangerous and threatening to the ingroup. We showed that independent of the beliefs in the ingroup’s vulnerability (the siege mentality), the association between collective narcissism and anti-Semitism was mediated by the conspiracy stereotype of Jews.

Figure 1. The link between collective narcissism and conspiracy stereotype of Jews. Figure adapted from Golec de Zavala & Cichocka, 2012, Study 2.

Subsequent studies showed that collective narcissism was a robust predictor of conspiracy beliefs outside of the specific Polish–Jewish relations context (Cichocka, Marchlewska, Golec de Zavala & Olechowski, 2016).  We showed that Polish collective narcissism was related to blaming an international conspiracy as a reason for the fall of the Berlin Wall (regarded as a symbol of the fall of Communism), instead of Poles receiving proper acknowledgement for their fight against Communism in the Round Table negotiations that defeated Communism in Poland (and had happened a year earlier). Collective narcissism also predicted the belief in Russian involvement in the Smolensk tragedy. What solidified this belief, and contributed to its further spread, was the fact the presidential plane crashed on the sixtieth anniversary of the Russian massacre of Polish officers in Katyn (Cichocka et al., 2016). The association between Polish national collective narcissism and the belief the plane crash was perpetrated by a vaguely defined enemy was found in a student sample, just after the crash in 2010 (Cichocka et al., 2016), and also 7 years later in a study with a representative national sample (Golec de Zavala, 2017). In a recent investigation, Catholic collective narcissism in Poland was linked to suspicions that gender-equality activists and academics teaching gender studies secretly plot to harm and undermine family values, traditional values, and social arrangements (Marchlewska et al, 2019).

Thus, collective narcissism is associated with a set of conspiracy beliefs. However, collective narcissism is also related to conspiratorial thinking that does not clearly antagonize the ingroup with a specific outgroup. We found that American collective narcissism was associated with generic conspiracist beliefs when those beliefs were applied to actions of out-group members, but not when they were applied to actions of in-group members (such as the country’s government, Cichocka, et al.,  2015). However, subsequent studies found that collective narcissism was related to generic conspiratorial thinking and conspiracy theories that do not clearly antagonize the ingroup with a specific outgroup. A recent investigation in the U.S. (Golec de Zavala & Federico, 2018 found that collective narcissism predicted increases in general conspiratorial thinking over the course of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, which exposed the public to many instances of conspiracist ideation (see the examples above). This suggests that collective narcissism may be related to a general predisposition towards conspiratorial thinking. In this study, we assessed conspiratorial thinking with the following items: ‘Much of our lives are being controlled by plots hatched in secret places’, ‘Even though we live in a democracy, a few people will always run things anyway’, ‘The people who really run the country are not known to the voters’, ‘Big events like wars, economic recessions, and the outcomes of elections are controlled by small groups of people who are working in secret against the rest of us.’ (Usciniski, Klofstad, & Atkinson, 2016).  We found that collective narcissism predicted an increase in agreement with those items from July to November 2016 during the presidential campaign over and above all other predictors and almost as strongly as political partisanship. We estimated two ‘conditional-change’ models in which conspiracy thinking in November 2016 was regressed on collective narcissism while controlling for respondents’ lagged value of conspiracy thinking from July 2016 (Finkel, 1995, equation 2.5) - one with and one without covariates. Coefficients represent change in the dependent variable over time as a function of each predictor.

Table 1. Predictors of change in conspiratorial thinking between July and November 2016 in the U.S.

Figure 2. The relationships between each predictor and a change in conspiratorial thinking between July and November 2016. Figure from Golec de Zavala & Federico, 2018.

Thus, contrary to previous findings (Cichocka et al., 2016), the findings of Golec de Zavala and Federico (2018) indicate that collective narcissism may also be related to a belief in conspiracies involving fellow members of the national in-group or members of vaguely defined collective agents. Arguably, the tendency to see the ingroup members as conspiring against the ingroup might have become strengthened by the populist rhetoric of the 2016 campaign. This rhetoric emphasized a division between the ingroup of the self-proclaimed, ‘true’ representatives of the nation (represented by the populist demagogues) versus those who disagree with their vision of the nation (‘the worst sort’, as the opposition to the populist government is typically called in Poland). Such a division is one of the defining features of populist narration supported by collective narcissists (for review see Golec de Zavala, Dyduch-Hazar & Lantor, 2019).

However, collective narcissism seems to be associated with other conspiracy beliefs that do not clearly assume a division between ‘the true group members’ and ‘the worst sort’. For example, collective narcissism was linked to support for anti-environmental policies in Poland (e.g., subsidies for the coal industry or logging of the primeval forest), Cislak et al., 2018. Moreover, Polish collective narcissism was also associated with the belief that, ‘climate change and so called ‘global warming’ is primarily about business – some groups make huge amounts of money by making people feel scared and guilty’ (Golec de Zavala et al., 2019, unpublished data). This association was significant over and above the role of political conservatism or support for the current anti-environmentalist government in Poland.


Figure 3. The association between collective narcissism and ingroup satisfaction and the belief in climate change conspiracy, N = 533.

In line with the new evidence, we propose a new explanation that accounts for all presented findings and allows us to generate new hypotheses. Previously, we excluded the possibility that collective narcissism is associated with conspiratorial thinking because it is related to paranoid thought. Paranoid thought explained the relationship between individual, but not collective narcissism, and generic conspiracist beliefs (Cichocka, Marchlewska, Golec de Zavala, 2016). We argued that collective narcissism may be associated with conspiratorial thinking because conspiratorial thinking in its essence always assumes intergroup antagonism of the sort that collective narcissism is prone to. A convergent body of findings indicate that collective narcissism predicts hostile intergroup attitudes and behaviours, especially in retaliation to offences to the in-group, both past and present and actual and imagined (for review see Golec de Zavala, Dyduch-Hazar & Lantos, 2019). The hypersensitivity to in-group image threat associated with collective narcissism (Golec de Zavala, Pekker, Guerra & Baran, 2016) may fuel a general tendency to engage in conspiracy explanations about what collective narcissists believe - that their ingroup is constantly threatened and under attack. Thus, conspiratorial thinking provides safe, externalizing explanations for the ingroups lack of recognition, and provides a sense that the ingroup is significant and unique by virtue being a target of secretive plots and attacks.

However, the reasons why collective narcissism is associated with conspiracy thinking may be broader and related to a more general mechanism of threat compensation. Resentment for the lack of recognition of the ingroup is crucial to collective narcissism, the important belief a person is committed to (the ingroup is great and exceptional) and feels permanently violated about (as the ingroup is not recognized by others). When one meaning-making system (the ingroup is exceptional) is continuously threatened (this exceptionality is not recognized by others) people are motivated to (1) assimilate information incongruent with their meaning system (by changing its meaning so it fits to the existing system) or (2) affirm another, even unrelated meaning system (for review of threat compensation models see Proulx & Heine, 2010), or both. Upholding a belief in seemingly coherent, even if false, new meaning systems (such as conspiracy theories) effectively satiates the motivation to maintain meaning after one meaning system is threatened.

Thus, we posit that people who uphold collective narcissistic belief about their in-group are permanently motivated to (1) search for an explanation of the lack of recognition for their ingroup that would allow them to maintain its exaggerated image (assimilation) and (2) affirm an available coherent belief system. Conspiracy theories can help to assimilate the incongruent information without changing the basic belief in the ingroup’s greatness. They provide external, unrelated to the ingroup explanations of why others undermine the ingroup. Conspiracy beliefs are also a coherent system, often supported by a range of elaborate arguments that well serves the need to affirm an alternative meaning, when the basic committed belief is threatened. Our results suggesting that the association between collective narcissism and conspiratorial thinking increased during the campaign that exposed people to more and more conspiracy beliefs are in line with this interpretation of the association between collective narcissism and conspiratorial thinking. This interpretation also explains the novel findings indicating that collective narcissism is related to conspiracy theories that are not clearly adversarial. It also suggests that people who uphold collective narcissist belief about their ingroup gravitate towards those who produce ‘convincing’ conspiracy theories, as demonstrated by their support for Donald Trump, whose campaign and political narration was filled with conspiracy theories.

Agnieszka Golec de Zavala
Agnieszka Golec de Zavala
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