Individuals with a high level of collective narcissism are more willing to conspire against members of their own group, according to new research published in the British Journal of Psychology. The findings suggest that collective narcissists do not just exhibit hostility towards other social groups. They also direct that hostility inwards.
“I personally have noticed some evidence of ironically conspiratorial behavior among those endorsing conspiracy narratives,” said study author Mikey Biddlestone (@BiddlePsych), a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab. “For example, in the past few years, we have seen tampering with COVID-19 vaccines and the use of conspiracy theories to motivate the January 6 insurrection, to name just a few.”
“While this may not be surprising to some of us, the implications of this are that people who form groups based around their conspiracy beliefs may actually be putting themselves in harm’s way by rubbing shoulders with those particularly willing to engage in conspiracies against them. This, combined with previous findings suggesting that conspiracy beliefs may be a projection of one’s own conspiratorial intentions certainly motivated my interest in this topic.”
Collective narcissism refers to the belief that one’s group is entitled to special treatment and is also superior but underappreciated by others. A subtype of collective narcissism, national narcissism, refers to the belief that one’s country is exceptional. This sense of entitlement can lead to a number of problems, such as discrimination and exclusionary behaviors towards members of other groups.
For their new study, the researchers investigated whether collective narcissism was also linked to problematic relations with one’s own group.
“The defensive and insecure group identity that collective narcissism captures (rather than the more secure, solidarity-based conventional identification with an ingroup) appears to show worrying implications for the treatment of fellow group members,” Biddlestone explained.
“That is, those displaying this form of identity are willing to treat their fellow ingroup members instrumentally, using them for their own personal gains. This is especially important when referring to populist movements, which have been shown to espouse stronger forms of this defensive identity.”
In a series of four studies, Biddlestone and his colleagues found evidence that collective narcissism predicted the willingness to conspire against one’s own group in various contexts.
Their first study included 361 residents of Poland and found that greater national narcissism was associated with a greater willingness to engage in secret surveillance against Polish citizens. In other words, those who agreed with statements such as “If Poles had a major say in the world, the world would be a much better place” were more likely to agree that if they held a position in the government, they would support wiretapping citizens, spreading false information, and monitoring the internet “without the consent of the observed citizens.”
In the second study, which included 174 participants, the researchers found that collective narcissism among workers in the United Kingdom predicted an increased willingness to gain advantage over co-workers by using tactics such as spreading false information about them and recording their phone conversations.
The third study, which included 471 residents of the United States, found that those who scored higher on a measure of national narcissism were more likely to agree with statements such as “If it was necessary, I would work with the government to carry out acts of terrorism on my own soil, disguising our involvement” and “If asked, I would aid organizations in concealing efforts that could lead to the spread of certain viruses and/or diseases.”
Those who voted for Donald Trump (compared to those who voted for Hillary Clinton) and those who endorsed more conspiracy beliefs also showed a greater readiness to conspire against American citizens.
For their fourth study, the researchers replicated the results of their first study with a sample of 1,064 residents of Poland. Additionally, they found evidence that heightened levels of individual narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism were all associated with a greater willingness to engage in secret surveillance against fellow citizens.
Importantly, the researchers consistently found that stronger ingroup identification (“I feel strong ties to other Polish people”) was not associated with greater conspiratorial intentions against one’s own group.
The findings highlight that people should “be cautious of joining populist movements that are centered around what some people would refer to as conspiracy narratives,” Biddlestone told PsyPost. “This is not to say that banding together to uncover Machiavellian or nefarious plots is a bad thing in itself, but more that a group identity based on defining the ‘real’ vs. ‘fake’ members of our society are divisive and can create a toxic culture of ingroup paranoia.”
The findings held even after the researchers controlled for political ideology, national identification, personality traits, and other factors. However, future research is needed to better understand why collective narcissists are more willing to conspire against their own group.
“Considering our correlational study designs, it is still unclear whether people are willing to engage in conspiracies against their ingroup in order to satisfy their selfish needs, or whether conspiratorial plots are a defensive reaction to the belief that others in their group are likely to conspire as well,” Biddlestone explained. “In our paper, we argue that both of these processes are likely, meaning that people may conspire to satisfy their thwarted needs for control, but then project their own intentions onto others, once again increasing their willingness to conspire as a pre-emptive defense against other group members’ plots.”
“I would just like to reiterate that this work is not intended to label all conspiracy movements as evil or nefarious,” he added. “Instead, we hope to draw focus to the political and psychological contexts under which people should remain vigilant against certain individuals who might try and steer the group in directions that are unlikely to benefit anyone or anything but their own selfish agendas.”
The study, “Their own worst enemy? Collective narcissists are willing to conspire against their in-group“, was authored by Mikey Biddlestone, Aleksandra Cichocka, Michał Główczewski, and Aleksandra Cislak.