It’s easy to get swept up with the crowd, but collective narcissism can be an insidious social dynamic you might not expect.
Social groups are common and exist in many avenues of life, from recreational clubs and sports teams to activist groups and political parties.
It’s natural to want to enjoy the company of other people who share your thoughts and ideals. Social connection is important and nourishing to most people.
But sometimes, supporting a social group can evolve into a form of supremacy with negative consequences called collective narcissism.
Collective narcissism, also known as group narcissism, isn’t just a handful of people with narcissistic traits grouping together. It describes situations when groups of people hold a collective belief that their group or organization is superior to others.
What’s more, this phenomenon often comes with a shared assumption that the group’s superiority is unjustly ignored or unacknowledged by outsiders.
Collective narcissism can be seen in almost any type of cooperative group setting, including:
- religious groups
- activist groups
- political parties
- charity organizations
- academic groups
- social clubs
- recreational teams
- fan followings
- cultural groups
Collective narcissism is about the culture of a social circle, not the individuals.
The role of in-group positivity
A sense of belonging in a group can be a wonderful feeling, even when that group demonstrates collective narcissism. This has to do with what’s known as “in-group positivity,” but not all types are equal.
Collective narcissism implies that a group feels elevated above other groups. It’s considered a form of defensive in-group positivity, which focuses on:
- external validation
- threat sensitivity
- negative consequences for outside groups
Secure in-group positivity, occurring in groups without narcissistic tendencies, comes from an individual’s self-satisfaction within the group. It’s typically resilient to threats without the person seeking to respond to them.
Examples of collective narcissism
Some examples of collective narcissism might be sabotaging another group’s efforts with false advertising or vandalizing another group’s property to “make a point.”
Collective narcissism can also be felt in comments like:
- “If people would listen to us, there wouldn’t be this type of trouble.”
- “Do you realize what we’re trying to do here? We’re the only ones trying to change the world.”
- “We don’t care about them. They aren’t even people.”
Not all narcissistic groups start out with a collective belief or defensive in-group positivity.
It may only take one person with narcissistic traits or narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) in an influential position to change the dynamic.
According to Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW, a therapist in New York, a person with narcissistic behaviors can appear empathetic and committed to goals within a group. They may even pick a noble cause to champion as a way of maintaining an altruistic image.
Often, she says, maintaining this persona in a group setting ensures the compliance of others and can eventually morph the group into a narcissistic extension.
“As the group or ideology of the group or platform becomes mired in self-importance and grandiosity, seemingly charitable objectives can become a means to acquire money, power, and fame,” she explains.
Once the culture of the group becomes narcissistic,
- entitlement and exploitation
- dominance and arrogance
By diagnostic standards, there’s only one type of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
NPD is defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) as a cluster B personality disorder, which consists of erratic, emotional, or dramatic traits that affect basic functioning.
However, popular belief often places NPD and narcissistic behaviors on a spectrum, which can include a number of types of narcissism based on the dominant traits experienced.
You can display narcissistic personality traits without having NPD. Narcissistic traits only become classified as a disorder if they significantly impair your life in a number of ways.
Covert narcissism is often the opposite of what people typically consider is narcissism. Instead of being extravagant and loud, covert narcissistic behaviors include things like:
- looking for sympathy
- being introverted
- seeming sensitive or easily wounded emotionally
This type of narcissism is also sometimes known as vulnerable narcissism.
Also known as grandiose or agentic narcissism, overt narcissistic behaviors fit the classic stereotype, such as displaying traits of entitlement and arrogance.
You may also have a tendency to exploit those around you without empathy.
Considered one of the
Malignant narcissism may also manifest as gaining enjoyment in the suffering of others.
Traits of antagonistic narcissism commonly involve an intense drive toward competitiveness. You may see others as rivals, leading you to take advantage of people to assert your dominance.
You may also be prone to disagreements or hold grudges for a long time.
Communal narcissistic behaviors can often come off as well-meaning, even righteous.
Someone with communal narcissistic behaviors may display qualities like:
- feeling outraged by injustice
- showing generosity
- offering support to those in need
This may not seem negative, but what makes these traits narcissistic is that they are typically disingenuous and employed for personal gain to elevate the person above others or to feed their ego.
Are there more types of narcissism?
There are a number of types of narcissism. Many are subtypes of covert or overt narcissism, and some are more common than others.
Ultimately, no matter the dominant behavior, narcissism in any form is narcissism because it’s self-serving, often at the expense of others.
According to Heller, the social consequences of collective narcissism can sometimes be characterized by harmful actions, like:
- inflammatory attacks
- unfounded accusations or scapegoating
- hateful rhetoric
- smear campaigns
- character assassination attempts
- black-and-white thinking
Nationalism and collective narcissism
Dr. Nicole Prause, a Los Angeles-based psychophysiologist, indicates that collective narcissism can cause an environment of hatred targeting other groups.
For example, 2010 research found collective narcissism may have directly contributed to negative behaviors and attitudes toward Arab immigrants in the United States.
According to a 2009 research review, collective narcissism could create a preference for:
- military aggression
- right-wing authoritarianism
- blind patriotism
Collective narcissism in the workplace
The social effects of group narcissism can exist in more modest ways as well, including in the workplace.
Heller points out that collective narcissism can create a “toxic work culture” where negative or harmful traits are touted as markers of loyalty and devotion, such as:
- accepting low pay
- blind obedience
- working exhaustive hours
- lack of work-life balance
A 2017 review of 45 research papers found numerous negative consequences — and few positives — of leadership narcissism in organizations, including:
- lack of concern for others
- difficult team collaborations
- negative emotions and behaviors in employees
- more tasks solely for company image
- negative outlook for organization’s reputation
Prause suggests one way to decrease group narcissism can be to start with the individual. By encouraging someone to identify with another group, you may be able to help shift their sense of self.
“For example, if someone is a member of ‘Incels,’ an online group known for its collective narcissism and violence towards women, supporting membership in a group sport like community soccer or theater may help shift the person’s central identity,” she says.
According to Heller, another option is to pay close attention to power structures and authority, and to question them.
“Evaluating the character structure of those in charge is a useful tool in identifying potential corruption and subterfuge,” she notes.
Heller adds it’s important to remember malevolent motivations are often masked by noble ideologies. It can be helpful to remain mindful of possible alternative agendas.
She concludes that open communication is also an option in stopping collective narcissism.
“Upholding a stance of equanimity and inclusive critical dialogue ensures that ethical group processes have a fighting chance,” Heller says.
Collective narcissism is about culture, not individuals. Sometimes called “group narcissism,” this social dynamic can have major social impacts, locally and globally.
Group narcissism is often characterized by:
- a pervasive sense of group superiority
- threat sensitivity
- outside retaliation
If you’re concerned you may be participating in collective narcissism, taking a step back and evaluating power structures, policies, and internal ideologies may help bring clarity.
Speaking with a therapist may also provide guidance to work through what you’re experiencing, your role, and how to successfully remove yourself from a negative group dynamic.