Spiritual Superiority Examined
New research looks at the fine line between spirituality and narcissism.
Posted Jan 24, 2021
When I was a social psychology student, my boyfriend went to a spiritual training week for clinical psychology students. Rumor had it that all relationships ended soon after one of the partners had gone there. He came back with an enlightened, elevated look in his eyes. He and his co-enlightees had been in touch with what really matters—things he couldn't explain to me, with my trivial earthly concerns and my analytic scientific reasoning. Ouch.
In later years, I noticed similar behavior among acquaintances who educated themselves in auras, chakras, or regression to previous lives, and then—how can it be!—invariably turned out to have remarkable psychic abilities, allowing them to “see” things and higher meanings that we, ordinary mortals, are entirely unaware of.
Dutch art historian Mariëlle Hageman gave away all her possessions and left for three years to a Buddhist monastery in Nepal. The title of her book, Buddhas Everywhere—and How I Didn't Get Enlightened, gives away the result. Her fellow students, trained in detachment, were continuously gossiping and scheming to ingratiate themselves with the honored monk—often under the guise of spiritual necessity.
From Buddhist guru to empirical research
In my first Psychology Today blog post, I described how our ego tends to hijack our spiritual development, thereby producing the opposite of enlightenment. The ideas of Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa on this topic were at the basis of a series of studies I did with my student Anouk Visser, into the phenomenon of spiritual narcissism. Several journalists have written about this pitfall, but it had never been empirically investigated. To do this, we developed a series of questions to measure the extent to which people see themselves as spiritually superior to others. For instance, our participants were asked to indicate their agreement with statements such as: 'I am more aware of what is between heaven and earth than most people' and 'The world would be a better place if others also had the insights that I have now.'
Our questionnaires were administered among various groups, including students of mindfulness schools and energetic training schools where students learn, for instance, to read or heal auras and chakras. As we had expected, spiritual superiority was related to self-esteem and even more strongly to communal narcissism. It was also related to the tendency to see oneself as a guide for others (for example, 'I am patient with other people, because I understand it takes time to gain the insights that I acquired'), and to attribute psychic abilities to oneself (for example, ‘I can influence the world around me with my thoughts').
In all studies, students in energetic schools had higher scores on spiritual superiority than all other groups. They even saw themselves as higher than others on qualities that are specifically trained in mindfulness schools (i.e., being in touch with one’s senses and bodily experiences) and not in energetic schools. Possibly, energetic schools attract people who already believe they have supernatural abilities and, hence, see themselves as special. Moreover, the training itself can only enhance their confidence in that domain: Unlike many other skills, which can be established by objective performance standards, it seems highly unlikely that during an energetic training program, people discover they were not supernaturally gifted after all.
Decentering and the ego trap
Spiritual narcissism can undermine any spiritual training and any religion too. It is not caused by the philosophy itself but by what people make of it. In our studies, students from mindfulness schools did show a lower degree of spiritual superiority. This may be related to the type of student who is attracted to mindfulness and meditation. In addition, note that the typical mindfulness program involves explicit attention to ego-related drives and temptations, as part of the process of decentering. That way, students learn to be vigilant about the ego trap.
That is necessary because, in Trungpa’s words: ‘No matter what the practice or teaching, ego loves to wait in ambush to appropriate spirituality for its own survival and gain.’ As soon as you notice progress in your development, your ego jumps out: look how great I’m doing! Other people who say something about how smug you are (like I did with my boyfriend)—well, they just don’t really understand it. That way, the alleged spiritual insights can also become a wall of defense.
Our research illustrates the sovereignty and tenacity of the motive towards self-enhancement, showing its operation in a context designed to quiet the ego. It also offers a starting point for spiritual trainers to guard this pitfall, so that their students remain on the ‘genuine’ spiritual path—which is nothing more or less than becoming awake: directly in touch with reality as it is right here and now, including qualities we do not like.
Vonk, R., & Visser, A. (2020). An Exploration of Spiritual Superiority: The Paradox of Self‐Enhancement, European Journal of Social Psychology.
Scott Barry Kaufman (2021). The Science of Spiritual Narcissism. Scientific American.