How to Spot Collective Narcissism in Social Media Posts
Collective narcissism presents a challenge to society.
Posted Sep 14, 2020
‘Collective narcissism’ or ‘group narcissism’ is not a new phenomenon—as a concept, it can be traced through Sigmund Freud’s analysis of group psychology in 19221, gaining special prominence in Erich Fromm’s ‘The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness’2. It is also central to the analyses of many unpleasant political regimes, especially associated with National Socialism, but equally applicable to any totalitarian centrally-controlled state of the left or the right3,4. As such, it is not a phenomenon tied uniquely to the digital age, but the digital world has provided a rich ground from which it can grow, with its self-reinforcing groups and echo chambers5. Apart from anything else, collective narcissism is taken to disrupt the development of group cohesion and provides a barrier to tackling many challenging social problems, like our responses to COVID-196,7. Given this, it is timely to examine the concept, the evidence of the impact of collective narcissism on society’s ability to respond to threat, and suggest a few ways of how to spot it developing in your social media groups.
Collective narcissism can be defined as an exaggerated view of the importance, or ‘greatness,’ of the group to which the individual belongs8. That group could be any social grouping, big or small; it can apply to nations, religions, sports clubs, families, or groups of well-connected friends—especially of the sorts fostered by ‘traditional’ text or image-based social media, like Facebook5. A key characteristic of any group vulnerable to developing collective narcissism is that the group defines itself through its relationship to others—needing external validation and/or an external enemy9. In this aspect, it differs from a legitimate, and quite useful, feeling of allegiance or loyalty to a group because of the satisfaction that the group, itself, provides (‘group satisfaction’). Instead of reinforcing group bonds through shared satisfaction about the group, collective narcissists tend to promote hostility towards out-groups to bind the in-group, and often blame ‘others’ for in-group misfortunes9. Those displaying collective narcissistic traits also are overly sensitive to criticism of their group. So, whereas ‘group satisfaction’ is reinforced by reference to the group’s own achievements, collective narcissism is reinforced by reducing, belittling, or maligning the status or achievements of others.
Those displaying collective narcissism often exhibit high sensitivity to threat, and also hold beliefs regarding others conspiring against the group8,9—two features which promote difficulties when facing a pandemic6,7. These traits all too readily occur in any social grouping, but the fast-acting echo chambers of digital technology provide a fertile ground for such a development. In one recent online study, around 800 people in Poland were assessed in terms of their ‘collective narcissism,’ ‘group satisfaction,’ and their ‘solidarity’ in facing the challenges posed by COVID-196. The study found that ‘group satisfaction’ was associated with stronger COVID-19 ‘solidarity’, but ‘collective narcissism’ was associated with lesser COVID-19 ‘solidarity’. Moreover, when the sample was revisited, some months later, those who had earlier reported greater ‘group satisfaction’ now had even greater ‘solidarity’, but those who had reported greater ‘collective narcissism’ had reduced their ‘solidarity’ over time.
A second study examined the spread of conspiracy theories about COVID-19 on the internet7. Around 900 people in the USA and UK were assessed for ‘collective narcissism’ (what the authors termed ‘national narcissism’), as well as their belief in, and dissemination of, conspiracy theories online. The results demonstrated that ‘collective narcissism’ was positively correlated with a tendency to believe and spread COVID-19 conspiracy theories. Moreover, both having high levels of collective narcissism traits, and believing such conspiracy theories, predicted poor adherence to health behaviours aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19.
Thus, there is growing evidence that collective narcissism gnaws away at a society’s internal cohesion, and, to the extent that social media may facilitate such collective narcissism, it poses a danger to societal responses to threat—a danger that can, of course, be exploited if we are not on guard against it. How are we to spot the development of collective narcissism within our social media groups? A collective narcissism scale has been developed6,10, and this identifies the types of statements that those with collective narcissism traits, or those looking to promote such a view, will make. For example, the following statements are all associated with collective narcissism: ‘If this group had more of a say, the world would be better’; ‘This group deserves special treatment’; ‘It makes me angry when this group is criticised’; ‘Few people understand the importance of this group’; and ‘I will not be satisfied until this group gets the recognition it deserves’. If you see these types of statements, then think about whether they could reflect a growing collective narcissism within your group. When doing so, contrast these types of statements with statements that are associated with legitimate group satisfaction6, such as: ‘I’m glad to be a member of this group’; ‘This group has a lot to be proud of’; ‘Being in this group gives me a good feeling’; or ‘It’s pleasant to be in the group’. The latter set of statements point to the attributes of the group for, and of, itself; whereas the collective narcissistic statements bolster the group by contrast against another group or groups—or, indeed, against the rest of the world.
These types of collective narcissistic statements echo many of those that you would find in a test for individual narcissism. The key exception being that the ‘I’ has been expanded to cover the entire group. Perhaps this, in itself, is part of an extreme grandiose narcissism that must cover fragile self-esteem through attacking others. Traditional social media (based on text or image), which can be anonymous and instant, coupled with high levels of inter-connectivity among an in-group, is an ideal source for growing such collective narcissism. This can undermine the potential for good communication of this digital medium in this time of challenge, and it is something that we need to guard against.
1. Freud, S. (1955). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVIII (1920-1922): Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Group Psychology and Other Works (pp. 65-144).
2. Fromm, E. (1992). The anatomy of human destructiveness. Macmillan.
3. Weaver, E.B. (2006). National narcissism: The intersection of the nationalist cult and gender in Hungary. Peter Lang.
4. Adorno, T. (1951). Freudian theory and the pattern of fascist propaganda. In M. Bernstein (Ed.), Culture Industry (pp. 132-158). New York: Routledge.
5. Reed, P. (2019). Are echo chambers a threat to intellectual freedom? Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/sg/blog/digital-world-real-world/201903/are-echo-chambers-threat-intellectual-freedom
6. Federico, C., Golec, A., & Baran, T. (2020). Collective narcissism, in-group satisfaction, and solidarity in the face of COVID-19. Social Psychological and Personality Science 10.31234/osf.io/j6ut3
7. Sternisko, A., Cichocka, A., Cislak, A., & Van Bavel, J.J. (2020). Collective narcissism predicts the belief and dissemination of conspiracy theories during the COVID-19 pandemic.
8. De Zavala, A.G., Cichocka, A., Eidelson, R., & Jayawickreme, N. (2009). Collective narcissism and its social consequences. Journal of personality and social psychology, 97(6), 1074.
9. De Zavala, A. G. (2011). Collective narcissism and intergroup hostility: The dark side of ‘in‐group love’. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 5(6), 309-320.
10. Leach, C.W., van Zomeren, M., Zebel, S., Vliek, M.L.W., Pennekamp, S.F., Doosje, B., Ouwerkerk, J.W., & Spears, R. (2008). Group-level self-definition and self-investment: A hierarchical (multicomponent) model of in-group identification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(1), 144-165.