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10 Classic Propaganda Tactics Often Used by Narcissists

How to use critical thinking skills to see through narcissistic manipulation.

Key points

  • Narcissists may communicate in misleading or coercive ways to gain the advantage over others.
  • One helpful lens for spotting such communication is identifying the presence of propaganda-like tactics.
  • Doing so can help a listener set healthier boundaries in the presense of manipulative interactions.
Pathdoc/Shutterstock
Source: Pathdoc/Shutterstock

Narcissists can be opportunistic and manipulative in ways that can be hard to spot.

That’s why it helps to have tools to decode unsettling or mystifying interactions with individuals who meet the diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder or who display strong narcissistic traits.

One helpful approach is using critical thinking skills, particularly those developed by social scientists to help us see through propaganda. Many narcissists can be quite skilled in using classic propaganda techniques—similar to the techniques used by repressive regimes throughout history—to achieve their goals.

Propaganda is the use of words and ideas to persuade others to think, feel, or act in ways that further a propagandist’s agenda. As long as there has been propaganda, there have been efforts to see through it. Around 25 centuries ago, Socrates developed critical thinking approaches to debunk fallacious arguments. Critical thinking skills are widely taught in schools today.

Below are 10 widely known propaganda techniques. As you read these, you may wish to note any which parallel how narcissists in your life try to influence or exploit you and others.

1. Black-and-white/either-or thinking

This technique involves pretending there are only two choices when there are several.

Example: “You’re either with me or against me.”

2. Incredulity

Acting as though what someone said is unbelievable and therefore open to ridicule or dismissal.

Example: “You think I’m self-centered? No one I know would ever say that about me. How could you say such a thing? You’re not living in the real world.”

3. Ad hominem

From the Latin meaning “towards the man,” this is an attempt to shift the conversation away from the topic at hand. If you bring up a topic that unsettles a narcissist, they may resort to name-calling, questioning your intelligence, or attacking your character.

Example: “Why would anyone listen to an ignorant cretin like you with your track record of repeated failures?”

4. Glittering generalities

A narcissist may use glowing phrases to describe their self, ideas, or behaviors without providing evidence or specifics.

Example: A narcissistic husband tells his partner, “I’m an amazing provider. I’m super-thoughtful and always put you and the kids first. You don’t know how lucky you are.”

5. The big lie

Another technique is spinning a lie so outrageous that it leaves others at a loss to know where to begin to refute it. Lying comes naturally to many narcissists, who are convinced that whatever they say in the moment is 100 percent true. They know that the bigger the lie, the more it may overwhelm others’ critical faculties.

Example: A narcissist confronted with evidence of an extra-marital affair may say, “This is a total set-up. Someone’s out to get me. I’m the most faithful husband in history. Who gave you this fake stuff? I bet it was your brother or mom. They’ve always had it in for me.”

6. Intentional vagueness

They may say something so vague as to be meaningless or open to multiple interpretations. The vagueness distracts from others’ legitimate concerns or questions.

Example: A narcissist, when asked why he did something that was not constructive, may say, “In any situation like that, I do what I should do. It should be obvious.”

7. Repetition/ad nauseam

They may repeat a word or phrase endlessly to stall further discussion.

Example: “I’ve made up my mind. That’s all there is to it. My mind is made up. When I make up my mind, my mind is made up. Period.”

8. Slogans

A slogan is a simplistic phrase that is a catch-all designed to shut down dissent. Narcissists often have pat phrases they employ when they feel threatened.

Examples: “No two ways about it.” “Trust me.” “I’m all you’ve got.”

9. Tu quoque

From the Latin for “you too,” this means answering criticism by asserting that the other person is guilty as well. The goal is to put others on the defensive while sidestepping the original complaint.

Example: A narcissist who is told he is being self-centered may say, “Yeah, well, you were pretty self-absorbed yesterday when you were talking about your vacation.”

10. Dehumanizing

Classifying others as inferior, dangerous, or evil to justify demeaning or oppressing them. This ends-justifies-the-means tactic can be second nature for narcissists, who view most other people as inferior.

Example: “If you really believe what you are saying, you’re crazy-dangerous. You should be ashamed of yourself. You should get some therapy, though you’re probably beyond help.”

Propaganda relies on distortions. Narcissistic Personality Disorder, like all personality disorders, is characterized by distortions of normal, healthy thinking and behavior.

By spotting how narcissists distort facts to distract or take advantage of others, you can gain a healthy distance that makes it easier to set appropriate boundaries against destructive narcissists.

Knowledge is power. Applying critical thinking skills can inoculate you against propaganda-like tactics.

Copyright © 2022 Dan Neuharth, Ph.D., MFT

A version of this post also appeared on Psychcentral.com.

References

Bernays, E. L., & Miller, M. C. (2005). Propaganda. Ig Publishing.

Lippmann, W. (1965). Public opinion. New York: Free Press.

Lasswell, H.D. (1938). Propaganda technique in the world war. New York: Peter Smith.

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