New research published Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin provides evidence that national narcissism is strongly tied to the spread of COVID-19 conspiracy theories. National narcissism, a type of collective narcissism, refers to the belief that one’s nation is exceptional and entitled to special treatment.
“We were interested in the role that conspiracy theories might play during the pandemic. The United Nations and the World Health Organization began using the term ‘infodemic’ during the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 to communicate the risk that misinformation might play in addressing the pandemic,” said study author Jay J. Van Bavel, an associate professor at New York University and author of “The Power of Us: Harnessing Our Shared Identities to Improve Performance, Increase Cooperation, and Promote Social Harmony.”
“I also wrote about the key role of misinformation and conspiracy theories, as well as collective narcissism, in my initial paper on COVID a few weeks later. This paper was a way to study those issues with a global sample and help understand what might predict the belief and dissemination of conspiracy theories during the pandemic.”
The researchers found consistent evidence that greater national narcissism was associated with stronger belief in COVID-19 conspiracy theories. Those who scored higher on a measure of national narcissism were also more willing to disseminate conspiracy theories related to COVID-19. The findings were based on a survey of 293 U.S. adults, a survey of 637 U.K. adults, and a survey of 50,757 participants from 56 countries.
In all three surveys, the participants were asked how much they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “I will never be satisfied until [my country] gets the recognition it deserves” and [My country] deserves special treatment.” They also indicated the extent to which they endorsed conspiracy theories about COVID-19, such as the belief that the Chinese government deliberately engineered and spread the virus as a bioweapon.
“People should understand that social identity plays a central role in how people construct beliefs,” Van Bavel told PsyPost. “This can, of course, be a good thing if you are part of a group that values accuracy and the well being of group members. Alternatively, it can be a bad thing if your identity involves inflated views of your group and an obsession with dominance or image management.”
“In this case, we found strong evidence across 56 different countries that this more narcissist form of collective identity is a very strong predictor of a bad outcome–the belief in conspiracy theories about the pandemic. And I want to underscore that this is a pretty big effect size, much larger than other factors we’ve explored in the domain of conspiracy theories and misinformation.”
The findings held even after the researchers controlled for national identification, belief in conspiracy theories unrelated to COVID-19, and political ideology. But the study, like all research, includes some limitations.
“The single biggest caveat is that we have no clear evidence of causation,” Van Bavel explained. “We tried to rule out a number of alternative explanations by statistically adjusting for relevant variables, but future research needs to find a way to experimentally manipulate collective/national narcissism. I think that is the most obvious future direction.”
The study, “National Narcissism predicts the Belief in and the Dissemination of Conspiracy Theories During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Evidence From 56 Countries“, was authored by Anni Sternisko, Aleksandra Cichocka, Aleksandra Cislak, and Jay J. Van Bavel.