Is Collective Narcissism an Inevitability on Social Media?
Evidence and multiple theories suggest social media creates collective problems.
Posted Sep 25, 2020
Collective narcissism is recognised as a growing challenge to societal cohesion, making impotent that society in the face of threat. While group-pride is helpful, collective narcissism promotes a sense of collective entitlement; feeding on a view that the "collective" is continually and unjustifiably criticised, against which members must lash out to defend themselves. Evidence shows that collective narcissists engage in social media to a great extent, and their groups are associated with the spread of misinformation.
Worryingly, converging evidence and theory suggest that this is not just a misuse of social media by collective narcissists, but an almost inevitable consequence of engagement with social media for some individuals. Why is this the case, what theory and evidence promote this suggestion, and how can you spot a person vulnerable to being subsumed within a collectivist narcissistic culture?
Among the first to draw attention to group-thinking and group-identity, long before the dawn of the digital age, was Freud.1 Drawing on previous sociological work, Freud suggested "the mass" allows constituent individuals to feel a sense of power, enabling acting out desires and impulses inhibited for the lone individual. Acting as part of a group gives a sense of power and a feeling of safety. Ultimately, these ego-reinforcers lead to a loss of awareness of the individual’s own personality and "infection" by any mass-held emotion. This view is mirrored in more recent psychological accounts, suggesting collective narcissists act to protect the group, as they view the reinforcement received from their in-group as fulfilling their own sense of entitlement2.
The mechanisms underlying this action can be explained by turning to behavioural theories of reinforcement,3 and their application to cyber-psychology leaves little room for optimism. There are two factors that have to be in place if a digital-environment is to drive collective narcissism. Firstly, there must be sufficient numbers of individuals in that environment who are sensitive to that form of ego-reinforcement—that is, individuals with external loci-of-control, often displaying low self-esteem, and/or fragile egos. Secondly, interactions in the environment must offer opportunities for that form of ego-reinforcement to be experienced. Analysing the problem in these behavioural terms throws into focus the growing evidence relating to cyber-behaviour and its implications for collective narcissism.
Several personality characteristics are associated with a tendency to engage in collective narcissism—it is linked to low internal, and high external, loci-of-control, correlated with self-criticism, low self-acceptance, negative affect, and high reactivity to environmental stimuli2—all of which are also associated with problematic internet use.4,5 Numerous studies show relationships between external locus-of-control (and all that goes with it) and heavy digital-technology usage. In one study of 700 internet users,6 stronger beliefs in the power of others, and in random chance, to determine life-courses, predicted greater internet addiction. Another study, involving 1,000 healthcare students, found internet addiction was negatively related to internal locus-of-control but positively associated with external locus-of-control.7
Although these studies are correlational, and no causal inferences can be drawn, none are needed for this argument. All that is needed is to demonstrate that relatively high numbers of people with high external loci-of-control are present in the digital environment. They are primed to receive ego-reinforcement.
The ego-reinforcement is provided by many online sources – joining-in with the group, being accepted as a "friend" – it can be argued that this is driven by the algorithms placed into social media by the controlling companies that trap vulnerable personalities8. Possessing low internal locus-of-control may lead to engagement in collective narcissism, as the collective’s "greatness" compensates for lacking personal control1,2. Preserving inflated group-greatness protects a sense of entitlement that, in the real world, is not fulfilled, and where the individual feels unrecognised and disempowered2.
A recent study of gamers9, known for potential loneliness and depression8, corroborated the suggestion that the discrepancy between a person’s view of themselves in real-life, and what their digital activity provides, drives their online behaviour. Gamers who felt less powerfully controlled by others in-game, compared to in the real world, played games more. Those who felt more internal control in-game than in real-life were more likely to display problematic gaming. Thus, the reinforcement of the digital-world can depend on the individual’s real-world situation.
Once in the digital-world, reinforcement becomes stronger when identifying with an in-group, providing more ego-strengthening agreement – elicited by agreeing with the group. A study of digital debate found that arguments confirming a group-view ("echo chambers"), and arguments contradicting this view ("trench warfare"), both reinforced the group’s own view of itself, but balanced arguments had weak effects on reinforcing the group10. Contrary to the authors’ suggestion that this may be a good thing for debate, it implies that online debates evolve into opposing camps of collective narcissists. A potential outcome being, the more the group is valued due to its ego-reinforcing properties, the less the individual establishes a personal sense-of-control, and the more they need the group – this, of course, is cultism.
So how can you spot a person with low internal locus-of-control, vulnerable to recruitment into a collective narcissist group? A study of 1.2 million posts, from 2,348 users, may give some pointers11. Individuals with an internal locus-of-control made more self-aware posts, projecting positive emotions ("grateful"); their posts were future-plan oriented, celebrating events ("supportive"), or highlighting their relationships (using "boyfriend"/"girlfriend"). The posts of those with high external locus-of-control were self-focused, used negative-affect words ("confused"), mentioned emotional grievances ("scars," "wounds"), and were more likely to discuss TV shows, movies, and the internet. This is not a fool-proof way to spot those at risk, but use of such language may be suggestive. It is also worth remembering that faking vulnerability is a way of recruiting individuals to a cause; especially individuals who are, themselves, vulnerable12.13. This may occur in the workplace12, during online-grooming, or in more sinister and disruptive manipulations of digital-behaviour (it may be in the interests of some groups to destabilise others by encouraging collective narcissism)13.
Although we should not get carried away with the idea that exposure to social media will instantly create collective narcissists, and we should stop using all social media (especially now), we should recognise the dangers. The evidence highlights real dangers for certain groups of people and that digital-environments facilitate the development of collective narcissism. Social media offers opportunities for in-group bonding by mutual reinforcement of any old nonsense that may bind the group and by attacking, with relative impunity, others who point out problems with the collective’s position. Being aware, and recognising this, is the first step to stopping it.
1. Freud, S. (1921). Massenpsychologie und Ich-Analyse. Die Zukunft einer Illusion [Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego: The Future of an Illusion]. Frankfurt-on-Main: Fischer Verlag
2. de Zavala, A.G. (2018). Collective narcissism: antecedents and consequences of exaggeration of the in-group image. In Handbook of Trait Narcissism (pp. 79-88). Springer, Cham.
3. Skinner, B.F. (2014). Contingencies of reinforcement: A theoretical analysis (Vol. 3). BF Skinner Foundation.
4. Lin, L.Y., Sidani, J.E., Shensa, A., Radovic, A., Miller, E., Colditz, J.B., ... & Primack, B. A. (2016). Association between social media use and depression among US young adults. Depression and Anxiety, 33(4), 323-331.
5. Romano, M., Osborne, L.A., Truzoli, R., & Reed, P. (2013). Differential psychological impact of internet exposure on internet addicts. PloS one, 8(2), e55162.
6. Chak, K., & Leung, L. (2004). Shyness and locus of control as predictors of internet addiction and internet use. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 7(5), 559-570.
7. Okyay, E.K., & Karakayali, C. (2019). The relationship between problematic internet usage in students of faculties of health sciences and parameters of locus of control and emotional intelligence. International Journal of Caring Sciences, 12(3), 1607-1615.
8. Reed, P. (2020). The loneliness of the long-term gamer. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/sg/blog/digital-world-real-world/202002/the-loneliness-the-long-term-gamer
9. Lloyd, J., Frost, S., Kuliesius, I., & Jones, C. (2019). Locus of control and involvement in videogaming. New Media & Society, 21(7), 1613-1635.
10. Karlsen, R., Steen-Johnsen, K., Wollebæk, D., & Enjolras, B. (2017). Echo chamber and trench warfare dynamics in online debates. European Journal of Communication, 32(3), 257-273.
11. Jaidka, K., Buffone, A., Giorgi, S., Eichstaedt, J., Rouhizadeh, M., & Ungar, L. H. (2018). Modeling and visualizing locus of control with facebook language. Age, 3(006), 10.
12. Nagy, Z. (2019). Set yourself up for a promotion. In Soft Skills to Advance Your Developer Career (pp. 155-199). Apress, Berkeley, CA.
13. Svetoka, S. (2016). Social media as a tool of hybrid warfare. NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence.