People with a strong, healthy sense of self-worth are more likely to support democratic norms than those with low self-esteem, but individuals with a narcissistic self-view are less likely to do so, according to a study published recently in the British Journal of Social Psychology.
The study also found that narcissists tend to believe that countries would be better off if run by strong leaders or the military.
These provocative findings add to a growing number of studies that have shown that basic personality traits can help predict people’s political stances, including their views of how societies should be organized.
“For the functioning of democracy, it seems useful to foster positive feelings of self-worth, but if those become narcissistic, they can threaten the democratic process,” the study concludes.
The research was conducted in the United States and in Poland, and was led by Aleksandra Cichocka, a political psychologist at the University of Kent in Great Britain.
Self-esteem vs. narcissism
As background information in the study points out, self-esteem and narcissism are two different types of self-evaluation.
Self-esteem “captures unassuming pride in the self without the need for external validation and serves as a buffer against psychological threats,” write Cichocka and her colleagues. “Secure self-evaluation is also associated with general positive attitudes towards other people and, as such, is likely to foster the ability and willingness to trust them.”
By contrast, “narcissism assumes positive feelings of self-worth, but is considered defensive rather than secure,” the researchers explain. “It is an excessive self-evaluation associated with feelings of entitlement and self-importance. Narcissists believe themselves to be unique and superior to others. … They are exhibitionist and constantly looking for external validation.”
As a result, say the researchers, narcissists “tend to support social hierarchies, especially if they feel they can be at the top of the pecking order. … They also have a tendency to perceive others’ actions as intentionally malicious. Overall, narcissists are hostile to people who undermine their infallibility and are easily threatened by opinions inconsistent with their own.”
A detailed survey
In the current study, Cichocka and her colleagues investigated how these two different types of self-evaluation — self-esteem and narcissism — might be related to support for democratic norms.
The study had two parts. In the first part, the researchers analyzed data from a 2016 survey of 407 American adults, aged 18 to 70. The majority of the respondents were men (225), white (305) and had a university degree (238).
The survey was designed to measure self-esteem and narcissism, as well as support for democracy, support for right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation (how much an individual prefers social hierarchy, or the dominance of one group over another).
The democracy questions asked people to rank on a scale of 1 (extremely disagree) to 7 (extremely agree) such statements as “Democracies are indecisive and squabble too much” and “Democracies aren’t good at maintaining order.” The right-wing authoritarianism questions asked people to do similar rankings of statements like these: “What our country needs most is discipline, with everyone following our leaders in unity” and “The old fashioned ways and old fashion values still show the best way to live.” And the social dominance questions asked for rankings of such statements as “In setting priorities, we must consider all groups” and “We should not push for group equality.”
The study found that support for democracy was positively related to self-esteem, but negatively related to narcissism. Narcissism and a low support for democracy was also associated with higher leanings toward right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance.
These results held even after adjusting for several demographic factors, such as age and education.
A Polish repeat
The researchers then decided to duplicate the study in a different country. They chose Poland, which they describe as “a post-Communist country … still in transition to full democracy.” This second survey involved 405 adults, aged 18 to 41. All were white, and most were women (236) and students (364).
Once again, support for democracy was positively predicted by self-esteem and negatively predicted by narcissism. This time, however, the researchers also found that the effect of self-esteem on attitudes toward democracy was mediated by how much people trusted others.
“It seems probable that those with a secure self-evaluation would develop better social networks based on self-confidence, which might help foster mutual respect and lower suspicions to others’ intentions,” Cichocka and her colleagues write. “This deep psychological attitude might make them more confident about democratic organization of social life, based on openness to others’ views and opinions.”
‘The jury is out’
This was an observational study, and therefore can’t prove a causal relationship between narcissism, self-esteem and attitudes toward democratic norms. In addition, the study involved relatively small surveys taken in only two countries. The findings might be very different if larger and more diverse populations were included.
Still, the findings are intriguing, particularly given the current political climate, both in the United States and abroad.
Cichocka and her colleagues say they hope their research will “offer a direction into how to better understand the psychological mechanisms driving support for democracy.”
“Although the jury is out on whether the new generations are becoming more narcissistic than previous ones, it is important to monitor how societal changes, including the development of technology and social media, can affect the self,” the researchers write. “In the end, these processes may have important implications for our social and political attitudes.”
FMI: You can read the study online at the British Journal of Social Psychology’s website.