In social psychology, collective narcissism (or group narcissism) is the tendency to exaggerate the positive image and importance of a group to which one belongs. The group may be defined by tribe, religion, social class, race, political stance, language, nationality, employment status, education level, cultural values, or any other ingroup. While the classic definition of narcissism focuses on the individual, collective narcissism extends this concept to similar excessively high opinions of a person’s social group, and suggests that a group can function as a narcissistic entity.
Collective narcissism is related to ethnocentrism. While ethnocentrism is an assertion of the ingroup’s supremacy, collective narcissism is a self-defensive tendency to invest unfulfilled self-entitlement into a belief about ingroup’s uniqueness and greatness. Thus, the ingroup is expected to become a vehicle of actualisation of frustrated self-entitlement. In addition, ethnocentrism primarily focuses on self-centeredness at an ethnic or cultural level, while collective narcissism is extended to any type of ingroup.
When applied to a national group, collective narcissism is similar to nationalism: a desire for national supremacy. Collective narcissism is associated with intergroup hostility.
Development of the concept
In Sigmund Freud’s 1922 study Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, he noted how every little canton looks down upon the others with contempt, as an instance of what would later to be termed Freud’s theory of collective narcissism. Wilhelm Reich and Isaiah Berlin explored what the latter called the rise of modern national narcissism: the self-adoration of peoples. “Group narcissism” is described in a 1973 book entitled The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness by psychologist Erich Fromm. In the 1990s, Pierre Bourdieu wrote of a sort of collective narcissism affecting intellectual groups, inclining them to turn a complacent gaze on themselves. Noting how people’s desire to see their own groups as better than other groups can lead to intergroup bias, Henri Tajfel approached the same phenomena in the seventies and eighties, so as to create social identity theory, which argues that people’s motivation to obtain positive self-esteem from their group memberships is one driving-force behind in-group bias.
The term “collective narcissism” was highlighted anew by researcher Agnieszka Golec de Zavala who created the Collective Narcissism Scale and developed research on intergroup and political consequences of collective narcissism. People who score high on the Collective Narcissists Scale agree that their group’s importance and worth are not sufficiently recognised by others and that their group deserves special treatment. They insist that their group must obtain special recognition and respect.
The Scale was modelled on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. However, collective and individual narcissism are modestly correlated. Only collective narcissism predicts intergroup behaviours and attitudes. Collective narcissism is related to vulnerable narcissism (individual narcissism manifesting as distrustful and neurotic interpersonal style), and grandiose narcissism (individual narcissism manifesting as exceedingly self-aggrandising interpersonal style) and to low self-esteem. This is in line with the theorising of Theodore Adorno who proposed that collective narcissism motivated support for the Nazi politics in Germany and was a response to undermined sense of self-worth.
Characteristics and consequences
Collective narcissism is characterized by the members of a group holding an inflated view of their ingroup which requires external validation. Collective narcissism can be exhibited by an individual on behalf of any social group or by a group as a whole. Research participants found that they could apply statements of the Collective Narcissism Scale to various groups: national, ethnic, religious, ideological, political, students of the same university, fans of the same football team, professional groups and organizations Collectively narcissistic groups require external validation, just as individual narcissists do.
Organizations and groups who exhibit this behavior typically try to protect their identities through rewarding group-building behavior (this is positive reinforcement).
Collective narcissism predicts retaliatory hostility to past, present, actual and imagined offences to the ingroup and negative attitudes towards groups perceived as threatening. It predicts constantly feeling threatened in intergroup situations that require a stretch of imagination to be perceived as insulting or threatening. For example, in Turkey, collective narcissists felt humiliated by the Turkish wait to be admitted to the European Union. After a transgression as petty as a joke made by a Polish celebrity about the country’s government, Polish collective narcissists threatened physical punishment and openly rejoiced in the misfortunes of the “offender”. Collective narcissism predicts conspiracy thinking about secretive malevolent actions of outgroups.
Collective vs. individual
There are several connections, and intricate relationships between collective and individual narcissism, or between individual narcissism stemming from group identities or activities, however no single relationship between groups and individuals is conclusive or universally applicable. In some cases, collective narcissism is an individual’s idealization of the ingroup to which they belong, while in another the idealization of the group takes place at a more group-level, rather than an instillation within each individual member of the group. In some cases, one might project the idealization of himself onto his group, while in another case, the development of individual-narcissism might stem from being associated with a prestigious, accomplished, or extraordinary group.
An example of the first case listed above is that of national identity. One might feel a great sense of love and respect for one’s nation, flag, people, city, or governmental systems as a result of a collectively narcissistic perspective. It must be remembered that these feelings are not explicitly the result of collective narcissism, and that collective narcissism is not explicitly the cause of patriotism, or any other group-identifying expression. However, glorification of one’s group (such as a nation) can be seen in some cases as a manifestation of collective narcissism.
In the case where the idealization of self is projected onto ones group, group-level narcissism tends to be less binding than in other cases. Typically in this situation the individual—already individually narcissistic—uses a group to enhance his own self-perceived quality, and by identifying positively with the group and actively building it up, the narcissist is enhancing simultaneously both his own self-worth, and his group’s worth. However, because the link tends to be weaker, individual narcissists seeking to raise themselves up through a group will typically dissociate themselves from a group they feel is damaging to their image, or that is not improving proportionally to the amount of support they are investing in the group.
Involvement in one’s group has also been shown to be a factor in the level of collective narcissism exhibited by members of a group. Typically a more involved member of a group is more likely to exhibit a higher opinion of the group. This results from an increased affinity for the group as one becomes more involved, as well as a sense of investment or contribution to the success of the group. Also, another perspective asserts that individual narcissism is related to collective narcissism exhibited by individual group members. Personal narcissists, seeing their group as a defining extension of themselves, will defend their group (collective narcissism) more avidly than a non-narcissist, to preserve their own perceived social standing along with their group’s. In this vein, a problem is presented; for while an individual narcissist will be heroic in defending his or her ingroup during intergroup conflicts, he or she may be a larger burden on the ingroup in intragroup situations by demanding admiration, and exhibiting more selfish behavior on the intragroup level—individual narcissism.
Conversely, another relationship between collective narcissism and the individual can be established with individuals who have a low or damaged ego investing their image in the well-being of their group, which bears strong resemblance to the “ideal-hungry” followers in the charismatic leader-follower relationship. As discussed, these ego-damaged group-investors seek solace in belonging to a group;however, a strong charismatic leader is not always requisite for someone weak to feel strength by building up a narcissistic opinion of their own group.
The charismatic leader-follower relationship
Another sub-concept encompassed by collective narcissism is that of the “Charismatic Leader-Follower Relationship” theorized by political psychologist Jerrold Post. Post takes the view that collective narcissism is exhibited as a collection of individual narcissists, and discusses how this type of relationship emerges when a narcissistic charismatic leader, appeals to narcissistic “ideal-hungry” followers.
An important characteristic of the leader follower-relationship are the manifestations of narcissism by both the leader and follower of a group. Within this relationship there are two categories of narcissists: the mirror-hungry narcissist, and the ideal-hungry narcissist—the leader and the followers respectively. The mirror-hungry personality typically seeks a continuous flow of admiration and respect from his followers. Conversely, the ideal-hungry narcissist takes comfort in the charisma and confidence of his mirror-hungry leader. The relationship is somewhat symbiotic; for while the followers provide the continuous admiration needed by the mirror-hungry leader, the leader’s charisma provides the followers with the sense of security and purpose that their ideal-hungry narcissism seeks. Fundamentally both the leader and the followers exhibit strong collectively narcissistic sentiments—both parties are seeking greater justification and reason to love their group as much as possible.
Perhaps the most significant example of this phenomenon would be that of Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler’s charisma and polarizing speeches satisfied the German people’s hunger for a strong leader. Hitler’s speeches were characterized by their emphasis on “strength”—referring to Germany—and “weakness”—referring to the Jewish people. Some have even described Hitler’s speeches as “hypnotic”—even to non-German speakers—and his rallies as “watching hypnosis on large scale”. Hitler’s charisma convinced the German people to believe that they were not weak, and that by destroying the perceived weakness from among them (the Jews), they would be enhancing their own strength—satisfying their ideal-hungry desire for strength, and pleasing their mirror-hungry charismatic leader.