Narcissistic individuals and those with psychopathic tendencies are more likely to strongly endorse left-wing antihierarchical aggression, according to new research published in Current Psychology. Antihierarchical aggression refers to a specific type of hostility aimed at challenging or opposing hierarchical power structures or authority figures. The new findings shed light on psychological mechanisms that motivate some individuals to participate in violent political activism.
The majority of research on authoritarianism has focused on individuals with right-wing political ideologies. This focus has resulted in a gap in understanding authoritarianism among individuals who support left-wing political ideologies, which the authors behind the new work sought to address.
“We were interested in the psychological factors behind authoritarianism,” explained study authors Ann Krispenz, a postdoctoral associate, and Alex Bertrams, the head of the Educational Psychology Lab at the University of Bern. “There is a wide range of literature and research in the field of right-wing authoritarianism (RWA). However, research on authoritarianism observed in individuals who are supportive of left-wing political ideologies are still rare.”
“By many researchers, the notion of left-wing authoritarianism (LWA) is even been met with skepticism. Thus, we wanted to investigate LWA and its personality correlates using a recently published measure for LWA by Costello and colleagues (2022).”
Costello and colleagues conceptualized LWA as a tripartite construct consisting of three correlated dimensions: anticonventionalism, top-down censorship, and antihierarchical aggression.
“Authoritarianism can be found on both sides of the political spectrum,” Krispenz and Bertrams said. “Indicators of authoritarianism on the political left are anticonventionalism (i.e., the absolute endorsement of progressive moral values), top-down censorship (i.e., the preference for the use of governmental and institutional authority to suppress any speech that is considered as offensive and intolerant), and antihierarchical aggression (i.e., the motivation to use force and aggression to overthrow established hierarchies).”
“For example, an individual high in LWA might declare anyone to be ‘old fashioned’ who is opposing their own ‘progressive values,’ strive to suppress free speech to regulate the expression of right-wing beliefs in educational institutions, and even endorse the use of violence to reach their own political goals.”
Krispenz and Bertrams investigated the relationship between narcissism and left-wing authoritarianism in two studies, and utilized the online research platform Prolific to recruit samples of U.S. participants.
Their first study included 391 individuals with an average age of 46 years. The participants completed various online assessments using the Qualtrics software.
To measure narcissism, the researchers used the Five-Factor Narcissism Inventory, a self-report measure with 60 items. The FFNI assesses narcissism on three subdimensions: antagonism, agentic extraversion, and neuroticism. Altruism was measured using the Self-Report Altruism Scale, which consisted of twenty items assessing prosocial behaviors (e.g., “I have given money to a charity”). Participants rated how often they had engaged in these behaviors in the past on a 5-point scale ranging from “never” to “very often.”
To assess proneness to socially desirable responding, the researchers used the Balanced Inventory of Desirable Responding. Socially desirable responding, also known as social desirability bias, refers to a tendency of individuals to respond to surveys or questionnaires in a way that presents themselves in a more favorable or socially acceptable light.
Left-wing authoritarianism was measured using the Left-Wing Authoritarian Index, a self-report measure with 39 items. Finally, the participants’ political orientation was assessed with a single item asking them to place themselves on a 7-point scale ranging from “extremely left-wing/far-left” to “extremely right-wing/far-right.”
The researchers found that individuals high in LWA tended to have high levels of neurotic narcissism, which means they cared strongly about what others thought of them, experienced high levels of shame, and had a strong need for admiration. Surprisingly, the researchers did not find a relationship between LWA and altruism, indicating that LWA and altruism are not strongly linked.
However, after accounting for other factors like age, gender, and socially desirable responding, the relationship between LWA and neurotic narcissism became less significant. On the other hand, a robust relationship between antagonistic narcissism and the LWA subfacet of antihierarchical aggression emerged.
This suggests that individuals who endorse aggressive actions to overthrow those in power are more likely to exhibit traits of exploiting others for their own gain, lacking empathy, feeling entitled, being arrogant and manipulative, showing reactive anger, distrusting others, and seeking thrill.
In Study 2, the researchers further examined the relationship between narcissism and LWA, focusing specifically on the subfacet of antihierarchical aggression. They recruited a sample of 377 participants with an average age of 46 years. They measured the dark triad traits (narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy), social justice commitment, virtue signaling, and political orientation.
The results initially indicated that antihierarchical aggression was predicted by social justice commitment but not narcissism. However, when controlling for other factors, such as the other dark triad traits, age, gender, and virtue signaling, a different pattern emerged. Antihierarchical aggression was found to be related to psychopathy rather than narcissism. This suggests that individuals endorsing violent actions to challenge hierarchy are more likely to exhibit psychopathic tendencies.
“Based on previous research, we had expected that LWA would be correlated to prosocial motives (e.g., altruism and social justice commitment) and ego-focussed traits (e.g., narcissism and psychopathy),” Krispenz and Bertrams told PsyPost.
“We found antagonistic narcissism (Study 1) as well as psychopathy (Study 2) to predict antihierarchical aggression above and beyond the respective prosocial traits. However, the prosocial traits were no longer predictive when the ego-focussed traits were included in the analyses.”
The study suggests that people with dark personality traits, like narcissism and psychopathy, are drawn to certain antagonistic ideologies and political activities. However, their motivation is not necessarily driven by a genuine desire for social justice and equality. Instead, they use these ideologies and activities as a way to fulfill their own ego-centered needs. The researchers call this phenomenon the “dark-ego-vehicle principle.”
“Based on our results, we introduced a new contribution to the literature on dark personality traits, coining the term dark-ego-vehicle principle (DEVP),” Krispenz and Bertrams explained. “According to this principle, individuals with dark personalities – such as high narcissistic and psychopathic traits – are attracted to certain forms of political and social activism which they can use as a vehicle to satisfy their own ego-focused needs instead of actually aiming at social justice and equality.”
“In particular, certain forms of activism might provide them with opportunities for positive self-presentation and displays of moral superiority, to gain social status, to dominate others, and to engage in social conflicts and aggression to satisfy their need for thrill seeking.”
“Most importantly, the dark-ego-vehicle principle does not mean that activism is per se narcissistic/psychopathic,” Krispenz and Bertrams told PsyPost. “It rather says that some forms of political activism can be attractive for narcissist/psychopaths; however, people also get involved in political activism due to their altruistic motives.”
“Secondly, the dark-ego-vehicle principle means that involvement in (violent) political activism is not solely attributable to political orientation but rather to personality traits manifesting in individuals on the (radical) left and right of the political spectrum. Accordingly, some individuals with high levels of antagonistic narcissism may be motivated to endorse either right- or left-wing ideological attitudes depending on which of these attitudes seems to be more opportune to them given a specific situation. Thus, it is necessary to argue very carefully in each case for what reason a specific dark personality should be attracted to particular forms of activism.”
The findings are in line with previous research examining the opposite side of the political divide, which has linked RWA to heightened psychopathic tendencies.
Krispenz and Bertrams said that their new findings have important practical implications for activist groups.
“Assuming that the DEVP is valid, minority groups should be made aware of the narcissistic ‘enemies’ from within their activist movement, as these individuals could hijack the cause thereby reducing the success of the activism in many ways,” they explained. “As grandiose narcissists typically desire fame, distinction, elevated social status, and high social importance, they can be assumed to strive for influential positions that involve social visibility and outreach as well as access to financial and other resources.”
“While pretending to be prosocial, narcissists tend to have low empathy and to be primarily interested in satisfying their self-centered needs. Therefore, instead of striving for reasonable solutions, narcissistic individuals will rather be interested in keeping the perception of problems going to maintain their highlighted position.”
“Also, narcissistic individuals might use the resources of the activist movements for their own private purposes, thereby causing irreparable financial and reputational harm to the activist movement,” Krispenz and Bertrams told PsyPost. “The perception of such narcissistic behaviors within an activist movement might then lead to dwindling support for the activist movement by the public and – in the worst case – could even be wielded against the respective movement.”
Previous research found a large overlap in personality traits, cognitive styles, and beliefs among those who scored high on left-wing authoritarianism and those who scored high on right-wing authoritarianism. Both groups had heightened levels of psychopathic meanness and boldness, dogmatism, disinhibition, need for closure, fatalistic determinism beliefs, belief in conspiracy theories, and belief in a dangerous world.
But Krispenz and Bertrams noted that more research is still needed to better understand LWA and DEVP.
“At present, the DEVP is not an elaborated theory as it is yet unclear whether it refers to a robust, stable, and reproducible empirical phenomenon,” they told PsyPost. “Therefore, we are currently investigating the validity of the DEVP in the context of different forms of activism (e.g., anti-sexual assault activism, feminist activism, LGBQ activism, etc.)”
“Future research should also empirically address the nomological network of the dark personality–activism relationship. Furthermore, future research is necessary to help our understanding of the boundary conditions of the DEVP by examining possible moderating influences.”
“We do not believe that every kind of activism is equally usable as a dark-ego vehicle,” Krispenz and Bertrams added. “As a minimum requirement, the activism must provide benefits that narcissists can repurpose to satisfy their dark personalities’ needs. For example, activistic causes receiving little to no public interest may attract narcissists less than activism which is widely noticed.”
The study, “Understanding left-wing authoritarianism: Relations to the dark personality traits, altruism, and social justice commitment,” was published online March 20, 2023.