Liberals and conservatives are narcissistic in different ways, study finds

A new study has found that liberals and conservatives are on average no more or less narcissistic compared to each other. But the two political orientations are associated with different facets of narcissism.

The new findings have been published in the American Journal of Political Science.

“Several paths led us to explore the relationship between social narcissism and political behaviors and values — and we actually began developing our research plan and collecting pilot data on the topic in 2009,” said study author Peter K. Hatemi of Pennsylvania State University.

“The first avenue was the growing interest in the relationship between personality and politics. The general theme was that individual differences as much as social conditions had a role in why we choose to get politically engaged and why we have the attitudes we do. Personality was one way to explore this dynamic, but the problem was the measures used were really broad and loaded with political content, and it appears politics influenced personality as much as personality influenced politics.”

“Narcissism appeared to be a character trait ideally suited to explore in the political realm — its measures were specific, focused not only on evaluation of self but others, and how others view us, and self in society, naturally focused on self-interest, and contained all those elements at the heart of politics — entitlements, superiority of person and ideas, ego aggrandizement, exploitation, authority seeking, and so forth.”

“Once we started mapping populist motivations with narcissistic activation, the similarities became clear — the superiority of ideas, overvaluation of the in-group and demands for special treatment are only a few. So we found all the makings of a theoretically robust research program,” Hatemi said.

For their study, the researchers surveyed a nationally-representative sample of 750 American adults between October 26 and November 1, 2016.

Using the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, they found that levels of narcissism were about equal among liberals and conservatives. But a higher sense of entitlement was associated with more conservative positions, while exhibitionism was associated with more liberal positions.

People scoring high on entitlement agree with statements like “I insist upon getting the respect that is due me” and “I expect a great deal from other people.” People scoring high on exhibitionism, on the other hand, agree with statements like “I get upset when people don’t notice how I look when I go out in public” and “I will usually show off if I get the chance.”

“The simple takeaway is that activation of one’s sense of entitlement appears to be related to individuals moving to the right, while activation of one’s need to display their values is related to left-leaning political positions,” Hatemi told PsyPost.

“The bigger message is that narcissism is part of all people’s normal persona. We are finding it has an important role in political values and decision making. The role is not simplistic such as to only categorize liberals or conservatives or Democrats and Republicans, rather, it operates uniformly in most domains but more specifically in others.”

The study includes some limitations, and leaves plenty of questions unanswered.

“With a nationally representative sample taken days before the 2016 election the data are strong. Still, it is the first study of its type, and of course further data is needed,” Hatemi said.

“Does politics drive narcissism or narcissism drive politics? Or both — which is most likely. Is this a relationship that will continue to grow or ebb and flow as times change? What will the relationship look like over time, longitudinally? What intervening processes are there? For example, how do social networks, institutions, and types of governance mediate or moderate this relationship?”

“We only scratched the surface on individual attitudes — perhaps some are highly narcissistically regulated while others are not? I could go on, but clearly we are only at the beginning.”

“Perhaps one of the most enjoyable parts of the study was going through people’s expectations — that is the rhetoric on the right and the left,” Hatemi added. “‘Wow’ is all I can say regarding how the left and right express their thoughts on the other. Turns out, both sides are wrong. The left and right are equally narcissistic, they just fall on different dimensions.”

The study, “Narcissism and Political Orientations“, was authored by Peter K. Hatemi and Zoltán Fazekas.