The Narcissist In All Of Us

No matter how big or small our personal egos, we're all narcissists when it comes to teams, tribes, and the human species. Ah, in-group thinking.

By Jeffrey Kluger, published September 2, 2014 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

 Illustration - two angry men pointing fingers at eachother
Think you know what a narcissist is, and you're right—sort of. They're the preeners, the mirror-gazers, the blowhards, the braggarts, the colleagues or family members who go on and on about themselves but whose eyes take on a sleepy glaze the moment you find a crack of conversational daylight and try to talk about yourself. They're the reality show exhibitionists, the NFL end-zone dancers. They're the bosses who bully you, the friends who exhaust you, the lovers who charm the pants off you—sometimes literally—then never call again.

But narcissists, like it or not, are also all of us. You may not be a narcissist and no single member of your social circle may be a narcissist, but collectively—in our communities, our nations, our political parties, our sports team loyalties, and, scarily, in our races and religions—we are all narcissists. There's personal narcissism and tribal narcissism—and that second kind can be a global affliction.

The narcissism of a tribe can be a wonderful, terrible, lovely, bloody, life-giving, life-taking thing—sometimes all at once. It's present in the harmless exhibitionism of the sign-waving, face-painted fans at the Super Bowl or the World Cup. It's in the faintly darker, more jingoistic chants of "U.S.A! U.S.A.!" that may accompany an Olympic hockey win or an ill-planned invasion of Iraq. It's part of every company softball game ever played—techies versus sales, design versus manufacture—and every blue state versus red state argument ever had. It's the Whigs versus the Tories, the Bolsheviks versus the Mensheviks, the Union versus the Confederacy. It's soldiers who race into the field risking death and ducking crossfire to save a wounded comrade and then, that job done, turn their fire outward and take other lives with the same resolve and pride with which they just saved one.

Human beings are social creatures—a very important adaptation allowing soft, slow, fangless, clawless ground-dwellers like us to survive. But being social implies bands, and bands imply favoring your own above all others. And because we're rational creatures, too—creatures who like to feel good about ourselves and don't like to think we seize land and resources and mates simply because we're greedy—we tell ourselves that we favor our own kind because we're smarter, prettier, better, more virtuous, more caring—a superior breed of people in a world filled with lesser ones.

Those feelings may exist in us naturally and unavoidably, but they are also dangerously easy to manipulate—with an anthem, a chant, a little scrap of flag. The narcissism of the individual is a focal-point thing—growing from within to take control of only one mind, one personality. The narcissism of the tribe is a gravitational thing—the kind that gathers more and more individuals, its tug increasing along with its size and mass. Dictators and despots may ignite wars and bring down nations, but they are still merely borrowing their power. They are the engineers in the cab of a hundred-ton locomotive. The people, the tribe, are the machine itself, and they generate a collective power that can all too easily go off the rails.

There are countless factors that distinguish in-groups from out-groups: dress, language, customs, music, hairstyle, height, the shape of the eyes, the length of the nose. But there is nothing that draws a brighter dividing line than skin color.

 Illustration - Hippy girl and soldier march separate ways
Race began as a few bits of coding that reflected nothing more than the climactic and geographical adaptations a migrating species had to make if it were going to survive in a new land—darker pigmentation to afford protection from the sun in tropical latitudes, lighter skin to absorb what sunlight there is in cold, damp northern regions. "We didn't start off as a multiracial species," says psychologist Liz Phelps, the director of New York University's Lab of Learning, Decisions, and the Neuroscience of Affect. "We have races simply because we dispersed."

But early in human history, those differences began to take on an outsize meaning for us. Like it or not, the tribe you know is much more inclined to protect you than is the tribe you don't, whose members see you as alien at best and a competitor for resources at worst. No sooner are children old enough to toddle away from the campfire than they develop a sharp antenna for otherness, perceiving differences they may never have noticed before.

Initially, children don't assign value to the fact that a stranger looks different. They notice it, and if it gives them pause, it's a result less of disdain or dislike than uncertainty. "In-group love can come without hatred of the other group," says Yale University psychologist John Dovidio. Indeed, he explains, it can sometimes come with a sort of sympathy—a sweet if misplaced feeling of concern. "If you see people who are different, you feel bad for them because they're not like you," he says.

I got a taste of that phenomenon when my older daughter was barely 4 years old and had not yet begun to comment on or ask about all of the different races and skin tones around her, but had begun to eyeball people in ways she hadn't before. One afternoon when we were in line at a busy Bed, Bath & Beyond, I noticed her staring at the cashier—a young African-American woman. I watched her watching, guessed what was going on in her head, and silently pleaded with her not to give voice to it. But no sooner did we reach the register than she did.

"Are you sad that you don't have light skin?" she asked. I winced and then hissed her name reproachfully but managed nothing more. The cashier could have responded in a thousand different ways—more bad than good, by my count—but she chose something that was equal parts insightful and gentle.

"No, honey," she said. "Are you sad that you don't have dark skin?" My daughter shook her head no. "Well, there you are, then," the woman said. "We're both happy with what we are."

That innocent, judgment-free phase of childhood does not last long; once even mild cases of racial bias get baked into an individual's or community's worldview, it's hard to get them out. It was in 1998 that psychologist and social scientist Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard University co-created what she called the Implicit Association Test (IAT). Subjects taking the IAT are flashed pictures of white or black faces in no particular order and asked to press a key associating the whites with a number of words, including joy, love, peace, and happy, and to associate the black faces with words like agony, evil, hurt, and failure. It is a distressingly easy and speedy exercise: Click one key for the good words and another key for the bad words, depending on the face that shows up on the screen. But it gets hard when subjects are asked to reverse the associations—pairing up whites with sad or tragic qualities and blacks with happy ones. No matter what subjects think about their egalitarian nature, they slow down markedly.

Encouragingly, such biases, while terrible, are also malleable, or at least more malleable than they seem. Phelps has conducted studies in which she scans white and black subjects' brains with functional magnetic resonance imaging, while she flashes them pictures of white and black faces. Both races have higher activation of the fear and rage centers in the amygdala when they see the opposite race than when they see their own. But when the opposite-race face is a friendly or familiar one—Will Smith for whites, or Harrison Ford for blacks, for example—the amygdala is significantly quieter. More encouragingly, when Phelps flashes the nonfamous faces more slowly, giving the brain more time to work, there will be the same level of amygdala activation, but it will be followed by activation of areas in the cortex—higher, more civilized regions that rein in the primitive emotions of the amygdala.

Plenty of people, however, are perfectly happy if their higher regions stay quiet, drawing stark—even murderous—differences between insiders and outsiders that do not even require a racial difference. That kind of behavior is present in mobsters who kill promiscuously yet go on rhapsodically about family; in street gangs that fiercely protect their members and turf, then spray rivals with automatic-weapons fire from speeding cars. But it displays its most terrible expression in wars—the dehumanization of the outsider is essential for wholesale slaughter.

There's a reason that in Nazi propaganda films Jews were depicted as rats swarming up from sewer grates—and it's the same reason Rwanda's Hutu referred to the Tutsi as cockroaches during the 1994 slaughter and American propaganda posters during World War II depicted the Japanese as fang-toothed, claw-handed, yellow-faced monkeys. These are beasts, the semiography says—and they're vile beasts at that.

Dovidio believes a dominant group needs to go through three stages to reach a state of mind that allows its members to slaughter: Dehumanization of the other comes first; a sense of disgust, which the animal imagery helps turbocharge, comes second; and finally comes extreme fear or extreme anger. The anger part is often stoked by framing the out-group as an existential threat—and it must be a knowing, calculated threat. An out-group that unwittingly carried a virus that was lethal to the in-group would surely be rejected, and maybe even killed, but its members wouldn't be despised. An out-group that knows the harm it's doing and does it on purpose is an entirely different matter. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the fraudulent manifesto published in 1903 that purported to be the Jews' secret guidebook for world domination, trafficked in such an idea.

Psychologist Robert Sternberg sees a different three-step process at work to turn mere animus into homicidal loathing. It begins with the familiar dehumanization of the target group. Next comes passion, which adds a dimension of rage to the mix. "Passion is hot hate," Sternberg told me for a 2008 Time magazine story about racism, "the kind you see in road rage or upon returning home and finding your spouse in bed with someone else."

Last, and most disturbing, comes commitment, a coolly reasoned, intellectualized choice to commit a murderous act. "Commitment is more of a cold hate," says Sternberg. "The more of these three components you have, and the more intense they are, the more likely you are to get massacres and genocides."

It's hard to know what to say about a species in which an emotion like "cold hate" is even on the behavioral menu, except that it's a mercy that such a state of mind is not easily achieved. And while it's impossible to lay all that ugliness at the feet of ordinary or even clinical narcissism, it's hard to deny that the arrogance, the self-regard, the diminution of others, the lack of empathy and remorse, and the willingness to commit any act to achieve personal ends, all of which are essential parts of narcissism, are in play here as well.

 Illustration - Giant fan sits on top of stadium
If tribalism can be wondrous or hideous, it can also be splendidly preposterous—and there is nothing that better proves that point than organized sports. It is hardly a novel observation that if war is politics by other means, sporting events are war by other means. There are the flags, the costumes, the marching bands, the songs, the bloodshed (often), the passions (always), and the emotional affiliation with a home city, a team name, and a set of iconic colors—the sports equivalent of the red, white, and blue. The bad blood between cities and teams can sometimes turn to real blood in the stands, in the form of brawls and even riots—depending on how the game is going, and often how much drinking is involved.

The question in all this isn't why we care—sports are fun, the pageantry is beautiful, and watching gifted athletes perform can be as exciting as watching gifted dancers dance. The question is why we care so much, since no matter how excited we get about the game, we play absolutely no role in its outcome.

It was in 1976 that psychologist Robert Cialdini, a professor at Arizona State University, published his often-cited study of the phenomenon he called BIRG—or "basking in reflected glory"—as it applies to sports fans. Over the course of most of a college football season, Cialdini observed students on the campuses of seven large universities, including ASU, looking particularly at what they wore on the Mondays after either a win or a loss by their team the weekend before.

On the whole, he found that students were more likely to wear an article of clothing emblazoned with their school's name, logo, or colors following a win than following a loss. On some campuses the difference wasn't much—just a few percentage points. But on other campuses, it was dramatic. Louisiana State University students were 2.4 times likelier to don the purple and gold after a team win; for Ohio State, it was a 2.3 bump. University of Pittsburgh students were almost three times likelier to sport a Pitt logo or Pitt colors following a victory. You may never earn the right to join the team and wear its uniform, the study suggested, but in this one way, you can at least come close.

In the second part of his study, Cialdini found that team performance also influenced the language fans used to describe a game. Following a win, the students he studied were nearly twice as likely to talk about the results in the first-person plural ("We won," "We beat them," "We scored the winning touchdown in overtime"). Following a loss, they were much likelier to disown the team and refer to it either in the third person ("They got beat") or simply to recite the results and credit the other team ("The score was 14-6, Missouri"). It wasn't I who lost, they're signaling, it was those people on the team.

 Illustration - Giant man with 100x smaller men march for a cause
The most macro expression of tribal narcissism is the one that gathers us all in—the narcissism of the human species itself, something that has made us the unquestioned lords of the planet. The dinosaurs once thundered, but the dinosaurs were an entire clade—just like the clade of mammals—and now they're all gone. Homo sapiens is a single species within a clade, and one that has been around for only 200,000 years.

It's hard to know how many other species there are on the planet that could, in theory, have competed for that crown, and the figure has variously been placed anywhere from 3 million to 100 million. One of the best studies, published in 2011 and conducted by a team led by marine biologist Camilo Mora of the University of Hawaii, puts the figure at 8.7 million—and humans are chipping away at that number fast.

In a typical year, we wipe out about 25,000 acres of forest, which comes out to a loss of 27,000 species at the same time. Clicking along at that rate, it's pretty easy to burn through the entire 8.7 million total in just under 325 years. Mora does not hesitate to label our willingness to wipe out other species to make room for our own as "narcissism," but he cautions that it's a characteristic of nearly all life forms. "If there were any species with the capability we have, it would very likely be taking all the resources too," he says. "But typically in nature there are automatic control mechanisms that stop the overexploitation. We became too smart, and now we're overcoming everything."

It is only in this one expression of narcissism that our me-first, self-adoring impulses might win. Narcissists in the workplace, in relationships, in political office eventually burn out and go away. Humanity as a whole, however, has little to check its ego. We may indeed achieve the utter dominance at the expense of all else that every narcissist craves. Whether we'll like what's left of the planet we've won will be another matter entirely.

Jeffrey Kluger is an editor at large at Time. He is a coauthor of the best seller Apollo 13, and the author of many other books, including The Sibling Effect, The Narcissist Next Door, and two novels. Twitter@jeffreykluger 

All Illustrations: Zohar Lazar

Adapted from The Narcissist Next Door by Jeffrey Kluger, to be published by Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, on September 9, 2014. Copyright © 2014, Jeffrey Kluger