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Narcissists are less supportive of democratic norms, study finds

REUTERS/Carlos Barria
The study found that narcissists tend to believe that countries would be better off if run by strong leaders or the military.

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.

Comments (26)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/06/2018 - 09:17 am.

    Hmmm… An interesting take on a relevant issue – with applications in other contexts, as well, or at least it seems so to me.

  2. Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 12/06/2018 - 10:57 am.

    Interesting that ‘Democratic Norms’ is used as a slam against Republicans (see pic in article).

    The recent post-modernism movement’s main objective is to tear down Democratic Norms. Are these left-leaning people of low self-esteem? And why were their pics excluded from the article?

    Quotes such as “narcissists are hostile to people who undermine their infallibility and are easily threatened by opinions inconsistent with their own.” Applies directly to college campuses that violently protest right-leaning speakers.

    • Submitted by Brian Simon on 12/06/2018 - 12:18 pm.

      Small ‘d’ democratic norms. As in “the norms of a functioning democracy.” It has nothing to do with political party.

      • Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 12/06/2018 - 05:23 pm.

        The picture at the top of the article is of Trump supporters.

      • Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 12/07/2018 - 06:47 am.

        The end-goal of the post-modernist movement is to uproot the oppressive structure of western society and its democratic norms. I’m not sure how much more small ‘d’ you can get.

        • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 12/07/2018 - 04:07 pm.

          And where did this come from? Meaning should we be governed by the wealthy and powerful or by the people? Seems the Preamble talks about, “We the People of the United States” Implies to me, that we are not here to serve the rich and powerful. Read: Their profits should not be at the expense of the health and well being of the people. The famous quote I read on MinnPost some time back of Trump and company, “Privatize profits, socialize costs”

        • Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 12/08/2018 - 01:01 pm.

          Again, Dennis, we are in agreement. We should not be ruled by rich and powerful narcissists, whether they represent the left or the right.

          No one’s profits should come at the expense of the people, whether those people lean left or right. This applies to the Clinton Foundation or the Trump dynasty.

  3. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 12/06/2018 - 12:51 pm.

    Specializing in self adulation, Trump said, “Without Mueller, his approval rating would be 75 percent. There is no way he can get to 75 percent without any time-proven accomplishments. His path, so far, has mainly been destruction. The deficit is rising, the stock market is falling, easy to win trade wars are not easy, companies are laying off, he has alienated the world, he is America’s embarrassment, and much more. Trump checks ALL the boxes of narcissism. We have a president that is the Poster BOY of narcissism. Elections have consequences and Trump is our consequence.

  4. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 12/06/2018 - 01:03 pm.

    What a surprising find–those who believe they are at the center of the world are not interested in allowing others to impinge on that view.

    Equally easy quiz—which party has built its rep on statements like— it’s”my” country, money, flag, etc.–and constantly harps on the dangerous and defective “others” ?

    Narcissism devalues the opinions of others, and what is democracy but the valuing of all opinions ?

  5. Submitted by joe smith on 12/06/2018 - 01:18 pm.

    October jobs numbers were higher than expected at 250,000 and wage growth is up 3.1%. Consumer and business confidence is up. We have a new trade agreement Mexico/Canada, working on new Chinese agreement now.
    Agree on Trump not having a 75% approval at anytime in his Presidency., totally disagree on why. Our economy is growing, not shrinking in the USA. GDP growth was 1.6% in 2016 2.2% in 2017 that is over 1 Trillion more dollars being pumped into our economy. They are forecasting 3.1% growth for 2018, do the math.

  6. Submitted by Bill Kahn on 12/06/2018 - 01:59 pm.

    Sounds suspiciously like Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean: be something less narsicistic than Trump, but not so wimpy you’d put up with him or his.

  7. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 12/06/2018 - 03:15 pm.

    Experience suggests the first folks to cry constitution are also the first folks that are clueless to what it actually says, Seems like Narcissists may be a pretty good description, they don’t have a clue why they think the way they think, but feel empowered/required to explode on you because you question their; disjointed, um-supported point of view. You must be an either or, with nothing in between, and the or part is absolutely wrong, and no discussion is required because they are absolutely right. Seems that mentality leaves zero-no room to gain additional perspectives on anything, because that door does not exist, therefore democracy, being open minded to new ideas is not allowed, supporting the observation of the study.

  8. Submitted by Mike Chrun on 12/06/2018 - 06:09 pm.

    By contrast, “narcissism assumes positive feelings of self-worth, but is considered defensive rather than secure,”

    And right on cue we have a couple of defensive reactions. One, who doesn’t understand the difference between the democratic process and being a Democrat. And another who touts suspect economic gains as that makes the cruelty, racism, corruption, and lying that characterizes the current party in control all okay.

  9. Submitted by Roy Everson on 12/07/2018 - 05:49 am.

    There has been a consistent conservative message for some years that words like liberty, freedom and patriotism are the domain of conservative thinking (despite their questionable usage of said words) and that these words have little or no application to their opponents, many of whom quite legitimately apply them. As any listener to right-wing radio can tell you, the conservative message is that belittling enemies — starting with the unapologetic abuse of language — trumps respectful dialogue. Is this a movement led by narcissists, or what?

    • Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 12/07/2018 - 10:30 am.

      The most used prejudicial language in the 2016 elections was used in the put-down of ‘white men,’ specifically, ‘old white men.’

      Listening to BOTH right-wing radio (KTALK), and left-wing radio (MPR), you begin to understand that neither side lacks narcissistic elements.

      • Submitted by ian wade on 12/07/2018 - 01:41 pm.

        Well, being a white man myself (the old part rapidly approaching), my thought is those of us who find feel that we’re some downtrodden demographic must have a guilty conscious as to what they’ve unleashed and must now answer for.
        When I see photos of “old white men” taken at Trump rallies, wearing shirts that say “I’d rather be Russian than a Democrat” or threatening to beat up members of the press, I feel as much revulsion as I did when the same demographic accused Obama of being a Muslim usurper, demanded his birth certificate and depicted he and his family as apes and tribes people.
        You reap what you sow.

      • Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 12/07/2018 - 03:42 pm.

        Ian, what does racism have to do with economic status? It’s ok to be racist against whites?

        Let’s do the switch the terms exercise. I will re-paraphrase your comment (feel free to re-adjust):

        When I see photos of “black men” at the riots, destroying buildings, looting, smashing cars, and yelling f— the police, I feel revulsion. You reap what you sow.

        For a visual.

        https://www.bostonglobe.com/news/nation/2015/04/27/photos-riots-baltimore/KRlsBZuycdpI3RAZv9WTeP/story.html?pic=9

        You can find it on both sides… a lot of it. It appears that you have put a filter on what you choose to see.

  10. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 12/07/2018 - 11:51 am.

    “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.”

    Reads pretty much like Rex Tillerson’s recent comments about Trump.

  11. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/09/2018 - 10:42 am.

    Well… duh. I don’t know anyone who works in psych and has encountered these personalities who could or would not have to you this… we didn’t really need a study, but I suppose data aren’t a bad thing.

    Obviously we need to recognize that these people should never have been allowed to pretend they were our moral compass, the ones with the stable and laudable “values”. And just as obvious is the fact that such people can never be allowed to make important decisions that effect everyone else’s lives… but isn’t this common sense?

    I think the problem frankly for decades now has simply been denial among the general population. The observation that some of our fellow citizens are pathologically toxic doesn’t fit well with the illusion of polite discourse. Centrists Democrats can’t acknowledge this pathology because they’re always seeking to accommodate narcissistic agendas in one way or another. How do you justify a political-social-economic practice of collaborating with toxic narcissists? It’s pretty much impossible, better to simply deny the narcissism and pretend you’re trying to compromise with reasonable people who just have a different point of view.

    I suppose one of the benefits of Trump’s election is that it’s hauled the reality of this toxic narcissism out into the cold light of day. And I would point out that this narcissism is a primary feature of the Libertarian mentality (based on the dystopian pseudo-philosophy of Ayn Rand).

    No one is saying that these personalities have no place in our democracy or culture… but the rest of us do need stop pretending they’re just normal people we disagree with, and we need to show up when important decisions need to be made.

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 12/10/2018 - 01:26 pm.

      “The observation that some of our fellow citizens are pathologically toxic doesn’t fit well with the illusion of polite discourse. Centrists Democrats can’t acknowledge this pathology because they’re always seeking to accommodate narcissistic agendas in one way or another.”

      Guess I’m one of those folks, didn’t think there were that many, I hate folks, but then again, didn’t think there were so many, its the obligation of responsible folks, to pay (no matter the cost) for irresponsible life style folks regardless true need, from the left either! They all have a vote!

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