People with higher levels of attachment anxiety are more likely to have higher levels of collective narcissism, according to new scientific research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The findings shed light on the role of attachment for national in-group commitment.
Anxious attachment and avoidant attachment are two patterns of attachment that develop in early childhood as a result of the way a child’s caregivers respond to their needs for comfort and support. These patterns of attachment can have a lasting impact on adult relationships and the way people experience and express emotions.
Collective narcissism, on the other hand, is a concept in psychology that refers to a shared belief in a group’s superiority and exceptionalism, combined with a fragile and easily threatened sense of self-esteem. It involves a distorted and inflated view of the group’s power, importance, and uniqueness, along with a sensitivity to perceived threats to the group’s status and image. The new research examined a specific type of collective narcissism: national narcissism.
“We were interested in this topic because collective narcissism (i.e., a grandiose image of one’s group that is contingent on the external recognition of its worth) was previously linked to maladaptive intra- and intergroup outcomes,” explained lead researcher Marta Marchlewska, an adjunct Professor and head of the Political Cognition Lab at the Polish Academy of Sciences
“For example, previous research conducted in our lab showed that collective narcissists are unable to confront the mistakes made by their in-group members which not only hurts innocent people, but also makes it impossible to change the group for the better (e.g., Marchlewska et al., 2022).”
“Collective narcissism was also previously linked to ingroup disloyalty, support for populism, lower support for democracy, higher conspiracy beliefs, and higher willingness to manipulate others for selfish goals.”
“In this work we wanted to find out what causes national narcissism,” Marchlewska explained. “Specifically, we focused on attachment styles to better understand their role in shaping different attitudes towards one’s own national in-group. We conducted our research together with scientists from University of Warsaw and University of Kent.”
In a survey of 570 Polish participants, the researchers confirmed their primary hypothesis that national narcissism was associated with attachment anxiety. In other words, those who agreed with statements such as “If the Polish nation had a major say in the world, the world would be a much better place” were more likely to agree with statements such as “I often worry that romantic partners don’t really love me.”
Importantly, these findings held after controlling for factors such as political conservatism, gender, age, education, and size of the place of residence.
Marchlewska and her colleagues then analyzed data from 808 Polish participants who took part in a two-wave in-house survey. The two waves of data collection were separated by a 6-month interval. Their analysis provided evidence of a longitudinal relationship between national narcissism and attachment anxiety. Attachment anxiety measured during the first wave predicted national narcissism during the second wave.
In a third study, which included 558 Polish participants, the researchers found that national narcissism mediated the relationship between attachment anxiety and COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs and between attachment anxiety and non-normative collective action.
Attachment anxiety was positively related to national narcissism. National narcissism, in turn, was positively associated to COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs (e.g. “The coronavirus does not really exist—it was invented to distract attention from behind-the-scenes political games”) and non-normative collective action (such as blocking the streets or destroying property to exert political pressure).
In a fourth study, which included 649 British adults, Marchlewska and her colleagues replicated the pattern of results in a different socio-political context. The researchers additionally found that national narcissism mediated the relationship between anxious attachment and an increased willingness to conspire (e.g. “If I were in the position of governments, I would manipulate the information about the coronavirus to increase my influence”).
“Across a series of four studies, we found that attachment anxiety which reflects feelings of low self-worth and fear may be the reason why people identify with their groups in a narcissistic way,” Marchlewska told PsyPost. “Attachment anxiety is characterized by a heightened sensitivity towards threats, coupled with continual elicitation of attention, support, and care from others.”
“We found that individual-level anxiety translates into collective defensiveness in the form of national narcissism, which is full of entitlement and concern about the external recognition of the in-group in the eyes of others. Thus, in line with previous theorizing (e.g., Tajfel & Turner, 1986), we showed that social identity may serve as a compensation for the frustration of different psychological needs.”
“We also demonstrated indirect effects of attachment anxiety (via national narcissism) on maladaptive group-related outcomes: conspiracy beliefs, nonnormative collective action, and willingness to conspire showing that anxiety-based national narcissism may lead to different forms of maladaptive societal outcomes,” Marchlewska said.
The study, “From Individual Anxiety to Collective Narcissism? Adult Attachment Styles and Different Types of National Commitment“, was authored by Marta Marchlewska, Paulina Górska, Ricky Green, Dagmara Szczepańska, Marta Rogoza, Zuzanna Molenda, and Piotr Michalski.