Are narcissists all the same? A new study by Fatfouta and Schröder-Abé, published in the October issue of Journal of Research in Personality, investigates whether communal narcissists differ from other narcissists. What is communal narcissism? Before answering that, let me first clarify the meaning of communality and narcissism.1
What is communality?
In his 1966 book, Bakan proposed two fundamental modalities of human existence—agency and communion.2
Agency refers to individual-related aspects of existence, such as self-assertion, decisiveness, and competence. Communion refers to community-related aspects of life, such as helpfulness, cooperation, and trustworthiness.
What is narcissism?
In social psychology, narcissism is generally synonymous with grandiose narcissism—a personality trait characterized by inflated opinions of oneself, a sense of entitlement, exploitativeness, and limited empathy.
Narcissists’ inflated opinions of themselves are strengthened by agency-related self-evaluations (e.g., I am exceptionally bright, competent, alluring, elegant).
So a narcissist might think of herself as the most intelligent, beautiful, sexy, or efficient person; but not as the most friendly, compassionate, considerate, or supportive person.
What is communal narcissism?
In a 2012 paper, Gebauer and colleagues proposed an agency-communion model, arguing that there are two types of narcissists: agentic narcissists (i.e. typical narcissists) and communal narcissists.3
The authors were not suggesting that some narcissists are highly cooperative and trustworthy. No, communal narcissists have grandiose self-related needs too. However, the authors proposed that communal narcissists differ from agentic ones in that they use communal means to meet those same grandiose needs.
To illustrate this difference, let us use an example to see how these two types of narcissists justify their sense of entitlement.
Imagine the case of a man who always expects his friends’ gatherings planned according to his availability and preferences—even though he rarely stays long and sometimes does not attend at all.
If he is an agentic narcissist (i.e. typical narcissist), he might justify the current state of affairs by saying “I deserve special treatment because I am exceptionally smart. I am an expert on almost any topic of conversation.”
A communal narcissist, however, may reason this way: “I deserve special treatment because I am extraordinarily warmhearted, trustworthy, and helpful; everyone feels at ease telling me all their problems.”
Communal in words only?
A communal narcissist is likely to rate herself high on prosocial behavior, but does that translate to actual prosocial tendencies, such as being trustworthy, working well with others, listening to other people’s problems and providing support?
Communal narcissists, according to people who interact with them, are low in prosocial traits and communal behaviors. So what is going on? If communal narcissists are not more prosocial than other individuals, are they lying to others? Or are they lying to themselves?
According to Schröder-Abé and Fatfouta, one way to answer these questions is by measuring narcissists’ implicit and explicit self-perceptions.1
Implicit/explicit views in communal narcissism
Explicit self-views describe deliberate evaluations of what makes one different from others. For instance, you might believe you look better than the average person (in your class).
Implicit self-views refer to appraisals that are made subconsciously. Because they are subconscious, these evaluations are less likely to be influenced by self-presentation concerns and are thus more honest reflections of your feelings. For example, despite believing yourself to be more good-looking than the average person, a test of your implicit self-views may show that deep down you have doubts about your appearance.
Similarly, a communal narcissist who on a conscious level believes herself to be extraordinarily helpful, may not feel that way at all at a subconscious level. So her explicit and implicit views of herself would be very different.
If so, for a communal narcissist, communality may “merely represent a lip service in the form of a hypocritical self-proclamation.”1
The current study of communal narcissism
The current study was conducted to examine implicit and explicit self-views in communal narcissists. The sample comprised 630 people (164 male, 466 female, average age of 23 years).
Communal narcissism was measured using the 16-item Communal Narcissism Inventory, which includes items such as “I am an amazing listener,” and “I am (going to be) the best parent on this planet.”
Implicit and explicit communal self-views were assessed using an adapted version of the Implicit Association Test, a computerized behavioral test that measures implicit associations based on reaction times.
Analysis of results showed support for the authors’ hypothesis. Communal narcissism was associated with explicit communal-self views only.
Concluding thoughts on communal narcissism
Communal narcissists differ from agentic narcissists in that they rely on communal means to satisfy their self-related needs. The study reviewed in this post suggests that communal narcissists may not, on a subconscious level, believe they are highly prosocial. Other findings have shown that communal narcissists’ claims of prosociality are not matched by prosocial actions.
Nevertheless, the results of this investigation do not suggest that communal narcissists are intentionally deceiving the public. A communal narcissist’s beliefs might reflect self-deception, not just public impression management. Perhaps narcissists are trying to convince the public in order to deceive themselves. Subconsciously, they might be saying, “I desperately need to believe I am exceptional. If you all believe it, then maybe I can really believe it too.” Further research is required to shed light on communal narcissists’ subconscious beliefs.
1. Fatfouta, R., & Schröder-Abé, M. (2018). A wolf in sheep’s clothing? Communal narcissism and positive implicit self-views in the communal domain. Journal of Research in Personality, 76, 17-21.
2. Bakan, D. (1966). The duality of human existence: Isolation and communion in Western man. Chicago, IL: Rand McNally
3. Gebauer, J. E., Sedikides, C., Verplanken, B., & Maio, G. R. (2012). Communal narcissism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103, 854-878.