Satisfied ‘collective narcissists’ have less desire to vilify outsiders

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New research on the links between self-esteem, collective narcissism, and group satisfaction could help explain the behaviour of people who are prejudiced against others.

Collective narcissistic language has become more prevalent in the US, research suggests. It was among the strongest motivations behind voting for Trump in 2016.

To determine factors which might predict why people vilify those outside their own group, psychologists led by Dr Agnieszka Golec de Zavala from Goldsmiths, University of London conducted a series of studies using data collected in the US and Poland.

In a report published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology they conclude that low self-esteem on an individual level predicts hostility toward outsiders via collective narcissism. Collective narcissism is a belief held by group members that their group despite being exceptional is not sufficiently recognised by others.

But the research also found that when those inside a group are more satisfied with their lives within that group, they are less likely to feel hostility toward outsiders.  

It has been suspected that individuals whose self-esteem is undermined might be inclined toward collective narcissism. This new research provides the first evidence that those individuals may indeed demand privilege and better treatment for their group to compensate for their own shortcomings.

However, this research also concludes that as long as collective narcissists are also satisfied and proud members of their groups, they are able to find ways of achieving higher self-esteem other than through criticising outsiders.

Dr Agnieszka Golec de Zavala, Reader in Psychology, said: “Research into collective narcissism and its impact is important when you see increasing collective narcissistic rhetoric in public life. In Poland, for example, the rise of right-wing populist party Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc has been accompanied by rhetoric about Poland’s ‘misunderstood greatness’ and increasing xenophobic attitudes - particularly toward Syrian refugees and the country’s small Jewish population.

“In the US, collective narcissistic language has become more prevalent. It was among the strongest motivations behind voting for Trump in 2016, and was utilised to amplify conspiracy theories during his election campaign. Further, prejudice toward Muslims in the US has now surpassed the highest levels reported in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. It’s vital that we understand the mechanics behind why people hate those who are different to them and what the behavioural consequences of that can be.”

Sample sizes for each study ranged from 427 people to 1,065 people. Data collection for surveys, longitudinal studies and an experiment were carried out by the Ariadna Research Panel for Polish participants and Amazon’s crowdsourcing website for American participants. Each of the seven studies explored different aspects of the relationship between self-esteem, collective narcissism, satisfaction and derogation of outsiders.

Participants were presented with numerous statements (for example, ‘my group deserves special treatment’ to judge collective narcissism, or ‘I take a positive attitude toward myself’ to judge self-esteem) and asked to rate on a scale their agreement or disagreement. Data was then analysed by the research team.

All studies supported the idea that low self-esteem leads to collective-narcissism, ie. individuals compensate for their feeling of ‘social impotence’ by exaggerating the positive image and importance of a group which the individual belongs to.

The results of five of the studies support the theory that individuals’ low self-esteem helps lead to derogation of outsiders and feelings of aggression against them. However, the effect was indirect and mediated by collective narcissism.

Individuals approach their ‘in-group’ with different expectations depending on their self-esteem. Those with low self-esteem are more likely to endorse the collective narcissistic belief that their group is not sufficiently recognized by others but are not necessarily satisfied with being in the group. Those with high self-esteem are more likely to be satisfied being in a group.

A report of the research, entitled Low Self-Esteem Predicts Out-group Derogation via Collective Narcissism but this Relationship is Obscured by In-group Satisfaction was published on 26 August 2019 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Image: Donald Trump in the US election. Photo: Michael Vadon via Flickr