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How Narcissism Is Tearing Us Apart

A collective sense of self-righteousness has profound effects on social bonds.

Key points

  • Modern societies are increasingly polarized along ideological lines.
  • Collective narcissism may help to explain how ideological groups are becoming increasingly extreme.
  • Contemplating and reflecting on our narcissistic tendencies may help us to heal some of our divides.

Modern democratic societies have seen intergroup relations crumble over the past half century, and psychologists have been attempting to study this phenomenon for decades. Although many psychologists have looked at the cognitive and motivational differences between ideological groups, these studies do not always recognize how those on the extremes of the political spectrum can often look more similar than they do differently. Looking at the extent to which people are invested in their ideology, and how this affects polarization, may be a more fruitful pathway to understanding our current predicament.

Clay Banks (via Unsplash)
Clay Banks (via Unsplash)

A Collective Sense of Righteousness

Collective narcissism is a social psychological phenomenon that refers to the narcissistic tendencies of a group or collective. It is characterized by the group's belief in its own superiority and special status, as well as its need for admiration and attention from others.

Collective narcissism is different from individual narcissism, which refers to a personality trait characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance and a need for admiration from others. There is often a focus on the differences observed between ingroup and outgroup members among those high in collective narcissism, with a tendency to see threats from outgroups in a more acute manner.

While individual narcissism is a personality trait that is specific to an individual, collective narcissism is a trait that is shared among members of a group or collective. It is often seen in groups that are highly cohesive, where members have a strong sense of belonging and identification with the group.

These groups may include nationalist or ethnic groups, religious groups, or political organizations, but ostensibly less important group identities (sports teams) may also be liable to succumbing to narcissistic beliefs, too. Collective narcissism can also be seen in groups that are defined by a shared ideology or belief system, such as social movements or activist groups.

It is here that we see links to modern social movements, particularly in the U.S. (where political partisans favoring candidates from either the Democrats or Republicans tend to focus more on maligning the other side than presenting a positive vision of how their ideology could improve American society) and the UK (where debates and disagreements about Brexit continue to divide the population).

Effects of Collective Narcissism

Collective narcissism is often fueled by leaders or influential members of the group who promote a sense of grandiosity and entitlement among group members. These leaders may use various tactics to reinforce the group's narcissistic beliefs, such as manipulating group members' emotions, manipulating information to support the group's beliefs, and encouraging group members to view outsiders as a threat.

Collective narcissism can also be fueled by external factors, such as social media and the media in general. Social media platforms can create echo chambers that amplify the views and beliefs of a particular group, leading to a distorted sense of reality and a reinforcement of narcissistic beliefs. The media can also contribute to collective narcissism by promoting certain groups or ideologies, and by portraying certain groups as superior or entitled to special treatment.

Routes to Overcoming Collective Narcissism

Collective narcissism can have both positive and negative consequences for group members and for society as a whole. On the positive side, it can contribute to group cohesion and solidarity, as well as provide a sense of pride and purpose for group members.

However, it can also lead to negative outcomes, such as aggression towards outsiders or other groups, and a tendency to view other groups as inferior or threatening. This can lead to intergroup conflict, prejudice, and discrimination, and can contribute to societal divides and polarization.

In light of these negative effects, it is important for individuals and groups to recognize and challenge their own narcissistic tendencies, and to strive for a more inclusive and respectful society. There are several ways that this can be achieved:

  1. Encourage open and respectful dialogue: Encourage individuals to engage in respectful and open-minded discussions with those who hold different views. This can help to foster understanding and empathy and can lead to more productive conversations.
  2. Focus on common ground: Try to identify and emphasize areas of agreement or common ground, rather than stressing differences or trying to win arguments.
  3. Promote empathy: Encourage individuals to try to understand and appreciate the experiences, perspectives, and concerns of those with different views.
  4. Foster a sense of community: Work to build a sense of community and shared purpose, and focus on the common good.
  5. Encourage critical thinking: Encourage individuals to critically evaluate information and sources, rather than blindly accepting or rejecting ideas based on preconceived beliefs.

By implementing these strategies, we can work towards a more inclusive and respectful society, reduce our collectively narcissistic impulses, and work toward healing some of the divides caused by political polarization.

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