How Narcissists Are Taking Advantage of Today’s Chaos

The "Energy Clash" model explains narcissists' use of instability.

Posted Sep 01, 2020

Narcissists thrive in chaotic conditions. Disarray gives them an opening to step up and take control while others look around in confusion. Narcissists have the ability to thrive because upheaval allows them to focus on themselves and move toward the goals they want, whether that’s leadership, status or materialistic desires. They don’t care so much about the system going down and common resources collapsing, and they aren’t that concerned with the problems of others either.

Nikko Macaspac/Unsplash
Some of us feel lost in the disarray.
Source: Nikko Macaspac/Unsplash

That’s why 2020 has laid out the perfect welcome mat for those with narcissistic tendencies to take advantage and do what they want. Elected officials at all levels — local, state, and national — are amplifying their voices and creating more grandiose platforms. On both sides of the aisle, they’re speaking strongly about public health, education, and the economy on a level they never have before. They’re also signing executive orders and issuing mandates in a swift, public way that rarely drew voter attention or media coverage before this.

And they are getting away with it. We’re facing a global pandemic, worldwide protests, and wide-ranging disruption in the ways we work, travel, and educate our students. For many of us, it’s hard enough to simply keep up with the latest information and manage our own schedules. For narcissists, though, this is a time to achieve and succeed.

Let’s look at a specific example in nature to paint a better picture. Billfish sit at the top of the oceanic food chain as clever predators who know how to slip into a school of fish while on the hunt. You may know them as the speedy swimmers of the Atlantic: swordfish, sailfish, and marlin. A 2014 high-speed video-analysis found that these sailfish stick their bill into sardine schools without notice and then use their bill to tap on individual fish or slash through the school, sowing chaos and division that allows them to capture their prey.

Narcissists use a similar strategy to generate power. They get close to others through their extraverted personalities and charisma, and then they have little problem being antagonistic, spreading discord, and disrupting the status quo. When people are confused, they become easy prey. Narcissists exploit the havoc they’ve wrecked.

In leadership, psychologists have termed this “Energy Clash,” when narcissistic people seek power in a system or organization. It starts with “perturbation” when the narcissist inserts instability through reforms and heightened feelings of enthusiasm. Then the “conflict” phase begins when the system fights back. In the end, the narcissist is either ejected from the group or takes over and implements innovation and change.

In 2020, nature itself imposed that instability through the pandemic, which opened the door for leaders to jump in and push their ideas quickly — whether through temporary measures to stop the spread of the virus or long-lasting legislation that could affect health care, education, and the economy for years to come. Some of these changes have passed under our noses while we’ve been focused elsewhere, while others have caused public backlash and dramatic policy changes.

We’re among the school of fish, paddling madly to survive as we get disoriented by wave after wave of new information, new guidelines, and new confusion. Then the narcissists — the billfish — exploit us while we figure out what to do next. It’s hard to tell who to trust, which way we’ll end up, how the pandemic will end, and whether we’re on the brink of a full economic collapse.

The chaos of the present moment can be very destabilizing. For many of us, the mistake is trying to figure out the chaos happening across the world and make logical next steps. In a stable environment, we’d look for the patterns and swim forward to safety. But chaos, by its very nature, isn’t linear. Too many ripple effects are occurring for us to point to the right way out. That’s keeping us stuck — but it is the reality of the situation.

The good news is that we can count on stability to eventually occur again. As the Energy Clash Model tells us, we’ll see the chaos return to calm waters. No one can say exactly when that will happen, of course, but we can feel assured that it’s on the way. We’re already beginning to see this in communities where people are coming together to provide mutual aid and support networks for each other. We’re already noticing a stabilization in some states and communities as they move forward with decisions that make sense for this fall. There are no guarantees, but there is direction. In the meantime, be wary of any leader proposing dramatic changes or special measures — many will be important, but many will be exploitation efforts by narcissistic leaders hoping to increase their personal wealth, status, and power.


Campbell, W. K., Bush, C. P., Brunell, A. B., & Shelton, J. (2005). Understanding the Social Costs of Narcissism: The Case of the Tragedy of the Commons. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(10), 1358–1368.

Domenici P, Wilson AD, Kurvers RH, et al. How sailfish use their bills to capture schooling prey. Proc Biol Sci. 2014;281(1784):20140444. Published 2014 Apr 23.

 Sedikides, C., & Campbell, W. K. (2017). Narcissistic Force Meets Systemic Resistance: The Energy Clash Model. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12(3), 400–421.