What is Collective Narcissism?
I was first moved to set out on this quest to understand white evangelicals because I kept observing very self-centered and entitled behaviors, along with what seemed to be a tendency to demonize opponents and a lack of empathy toward others who were not like them.
This is what narcissism looks like, I thought to myself. But how can I think about that for a whole group?
I began to approach my study of white evangelicals as if they were a narcissistic family. Much has been written about these families, including entire books, and it seemed to fit. But as I got deeper into the research, I became aware of a concept that fit even better: collective narcissism.
I had never heard of this idea before I began working on the book, but in my searches for studies on narcissism, this phrase kept popping up. The original studies seemed to focus on what was called “soccer hooliganism,” which could best be described as “my team is awesome and since you don’t like my team, I hate you and may even assault you.” Other earlier studies looked at nationalistic movements across multiple countries, often throughout Europe.
The concept was pioneered by a Polish researcher, Dr. Agnieszka Golec de Zavala, who developed a Collective Narcissism Scale and has completed multiple studies on the topic. I had the chance to talk to her from her office in London and she described the essence of collective narcissism to me.
“When you think your group is great, but no one appreciates it, it makes you more convinced you are not appreciated as a member of the group. If you hear, your group is great but it’s not great enough or it’s not as great as it used to be, then you begin to believe that. You hear the group is not appreciated, then you begin to believe that it should be,” she told me.
The essence of collective narcissism is that a group believes it is special and exceptional, but also believes outsiders don’t like their group or believe they are extraordinary, so they get hostile toward those outsiders and believe they are justified at being angry and aggressive toward them. Dr. Golec de Zavala described it to me as “In-group love associated with out-group hate.” It’s a psychological process that happens to many groups.
What’s fascinating about the concept of collective narcissism is that not every member of the group needs to show signs of pathological narcissism. In fact, it’s even likely that the majority of group members don’t have Narcissistic Personality Disorders or significant symptoms of malignant narcissism. According to Dr. Golec de Zavala, about 15-16% of most groups tend to rate high in collective narcissism. However, higher rates of collective narcissism can occur in certain groups.
To understand collective narcissism, think of the group as an organism. All the parts might be different, but they move and react together. The primary task of these parts is to work together to feed the organism, protect the organism, grow the organism. That is their imperative. Most groups behave like this. They are typically composed of like-minded people who have similar goals and values. When these people get together, they move together. They act as one for the good of the larger group. If there is a perception of threat against the group—physical threats, threats to their status, threats to their reputation or respect—collective narcissism begins to incubate.
Though most individuals who rate high in collective narcissism have their own narcissistic tendencies, it is possible someone who is good and well-meaning can be so consumed by the group that they will support it, protect it, and promote it, almost at all costs. They do this for a number of reasons. They might believe passionately about the mission and purpose of the group. They may also do this because their sense of identity is bound up in being a part of the group. It’s also possible they do this because the group makes them feel safe and protected. Whatever the motive, they are loyal to the group and vigorously fight for it.
The main premise of my book is that white evangelicals have become a group high in collective narcissism. I ran a series of four studies with a cross-section of the population representing all regions of the country, all age groups, and different racial groups. In one of my studies, I asked questions from the Collective Narcissism Scale. Conservative white Christians rated the highest on collective narcissism than any other group.
To understand the concept of collective narcissism, I have divided the ideas into three sections, each with three points. First, I describe the three necessary variables that make up collective narcissism. Then I discuss the three traits that are usually involved in forming collective narcissism. Finally, I talk about the three results of collective narcissism.
The Three Variables That Form Collective Narcissism
Collective narcissism has three required variables that, by definition, must be present. First, a person must be part of a group that he or she perceives as special. Maybe it’s fans of a professional soccer club or associates of an elite organization or partners in a successful company or congregants of a church. Whatever the group, the member thinks the group is special and extraordinary. They have a sense of pride in their association with the group.
Second, and equally important, the person thinks those outside of the group disrespect their group. Those others don’t get how remarkable our group is. Those outsiders might harshly criticize us or even say mean things about the group. They may hold views and values that are very different than our own.
And finally, third, the person believes these outsiders pose a threat, so they develop a siege mentality and feel justified in being hostile toward those outside the group. Because the group is so exceptional, they must active fight against anyone who opposes them.
The Three Necessary Traits of Collective Narcissism
There are three traits that seem to be the necessary ingredients for collective narcissism. First, the person usually has more narcissistic traits than the average person. There are often thought to be two forms of narcissism: grandiose and vulnerable. The grandiose narcissist is what we think a narcissist is: arrogant, attention-seeking, entitled, requiring adulation from admirers. The vulnerable narcissist tends to be more neurotic and self-doubting, prone to anxiety or depression. They feel wounded and small, but they are still as self-centered as the grandiose narcissist. These two need each other. The vulnerable narcissist is looking for a strong man, a charismatic leader who will represent an ideal for him and who will stick up for him. The grandiose narcissist basks in the spotlight and the attention.
The second trait that makes the fertile soil of collective narcissism is low self-esteem. In many ways, narcissism is always a distorted view of self, either too big or too small, too good or too bad. Low self-esteem, in particular, refers to the vulnerable, wounded narcissist. He is the one who feels diminished, inferior, disrespected. His narcissism is that of the hurt child.
The final trait or condition that primes a person for collective narcissism is perceived threat. They see those outside the group as threatening, wishing to do them harm, trying to usurp and undermine them. They see the other as hostile and scary.
The Three Results of Collective Narcissism
There are three results that flow from collective narcissism. The first is a siege mentality. Those high in collective narcissism believe outsiders are coming for them and they need to circle the wagons. They truly believe they are under attack and will be overrun unless they fight back. Second, they are prone to conspiracy thinking. They readily buy conspiracy theories that align with their views. Whatever supports their narrative of reality, no matter how outlandish, is accepted as true or likely truth. Finally, the siege mentality and the belief in reinforcing and alternative “facts” produces a desire for revenge. The outsiders are trying to tear down what they hold dear. They feel justified in retaliating against them.
It’s not just outsiders that cause collective narcissists concern, though. One recent study out of The University of Cambridge found individuals with high levels of collective narcissism had a strong willingness to conspire against members of their own tribe and supported in-group surveillance policies. They were prone to mistrust, power plays, and snooping. The paradox here is that people high in collective narcissism are often drawn to the group partly because it offers a sense of protection and security, yet they are more likely to be held in suspicion and even undermined by like-minded members of their group. This is the nature of these kinds of groups. They draw people prone to seeing the world as hostile and untrustworthy, so they bring those biases into the group.
Evangelicals as Collective Narcissists
Conservative white evangelicals have become a subculture high in collective narcissism. They view themselves as special, chosen by God, possessors of truth. They increasingly perceive threat from outsiders who challenge them, point out their hypocrisies, and lay challenge to the positions of power they hold in our society. As a result, they have developed a siege mentality. They circle the wagons to fend off the gathering horde. They demonize their opponents. At the same time, they filter in data that fits their narrative while filtering out information that does not support their views.
Many social observers view the bad behavior of white evangelicals purely as a group fearful they are being push aside and losing their seats at the head of the cultural table. That is certainly present, but there is an even deeper part of this. White evangelicals truly believe they are special, ordained by God, and uniquely qualified to be in charge. For many of them, they go a step further. They believe God has entrusted the country and its institutions to them, so they are required to fight those who would challenge them. This belief that they are commanded to “take the country back for God, maintain control, and beat down any who oppose them is what makes them especially threatening to a democracy.