Collective narcissism predicts hypersensitivity to insult, study finds

New research published in the European Journal of Personality shows how collective narcissism can exacerbate inter-group conflict.

The study of 1,596 individuals from Turkey, Portugal and Poland found collective narcissism — meaning the belief in the exaggerated greatness of one’s own group — predicted hypersensitivity to insults along with retaliatory hostility.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Agnieszka Golec de Zavala of Goldsmiths, University of London. Read her explanation of the research below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

De Zavala: The interests in this topic was sparked by the observation that people can be narcissistic about their groups. Narcissists hold unrealistic beliefs about their own greatness and entitlement and demand admiration by others. Collective narcissists hold unrealistic beliefs about greatness of this or other group and demand that the group receives privileged treatment from others. The two forms of narcissism are not necessarily related. People can be collective narcissistic about various groups even as mundane as a group defined as ‘students of the same university’. But there are some groups – like a nation or a political party – that are particularly likely to inspire collective narcissism.

We set out to study collective narcissism because it has quite damaging consequences for intergroup relations. We found that it is related to intergroup hostility and prejudice over and above other variables such as authoritarianism or social dominance orientation.

A good example of collective narcissistic beliefs is Osama bin Laden Letter to America. The letter expresses a belief that there is a group that is superior to others. It is entitled to dominate and guide other groups or punish them if they don’t properly recognize the group’s guidance and greatness.

We see collective narcissism as a destructive phenomenon and we are interested in advancing our understanding of its consequences.

What should the average person take away from your study?

Perhaps the most important message from our studies is that when it comes to their group image collective narcissists have no sense of humor, no distance and no compassion. They feel insulted by action and situations that fall beyond a common definition of insult. Turkish collective narcissists felt humiliated by the Turkish wait to be admitted to the European Union. Polish collective narcissists felt offended by a historical movie or a jokes a celebrity actor made about the Polish government. Portuguese collective narcissists felt insulted because Germany fared better in intergroup comparisons than Portugal. Collective narcissists advocated hostile revenge in response to those ‘insults’. They also rejoiced in misfortunes of the ‘perpetrators’.

These results are in line with our previous findings that collective narcissists retaliate in response to the in-group image threat, but they go beyond those findings and show how far collective narcissistic hypersensitivity to in-group offence may go.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

I think is the major limitation of our studies is that we understand and measure collective narcissism as an individual difference variable, a characteristic of an individual. However, we use our findings trying to explain intergroup phenomena. There is a value in describing dangerous correlates of collective narcissism and understanding its consequences and etiology on individual level. However, our ambition is to examine the dynamics of collective narcissism as an intergroup process. I think it is very important to understand processes through which collective narcissistic sentiments and mentality are appropriated by whole groups and become legitimized as dominant ideologies moving groups toward supporting leaders and political decisions that are disastrous to harmonious intergroup relations.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Our findings shed a new light on in-group identification processes involved in radicalization towards intergroup hostility. They point to the important role of collective narcissism in inspiring the narrative about in-group offence and humiliation and a necessity to ‘take back control’ or make the nation ‘great again’ without shying away from extreme actions. In this context our latest results are particularly worrisome (currently under review in British Journal of Social Psychology and Public Opinion Quarterly). They show that that national collective narcissism motivated Brexit vote in the UK and Trump vote in the U.S. Collective narcissism seems to be on the rise globally and it has got legitimized in democratic states.

The study, “Collective Narcissism Predicts Hypersensitivity to In-group Insult and Direct and Indirect Retaliatory Intergroup Hostility“, was also co-authored by Müjde Peker, Rita Guerra, and Tomasz Baran.