There have been claims recently that “collective Narcissism” explains some episodes where people behave in ways that are unexpected viz. elect Trump and vote for Brexit. If Narcissism is interpreted in the formal way that psychiatrists do, this can’t really be true. But, as I will explain, there are ways of constructing the claim such that it reveals some valuable insights.
The way we predict and explain the behaviour of others is known as “Theory of Mind.” I explain how this works here: https://timlshort.com/2018/09/26/what-is-theory-of-mind but the short version is as follows. There are two major accounts of how we predict and explain the behaviour of others. They are known as Simulation Theory, where we predict others by simulating them, and Theory Theory, where we predict and explain others by using a theory of them. While the second account is the mainstream one, I have defended the simulationist account in my first book, “Simulation Theory:” https://www.amazon.co.uk/Simulation-Theory-psychological-philosophical-consideration-ebook/dp/B00S1DDMKI
The major objection to Simulation Theory has been that it cannot explain systematic errors in Theory of Mind. These are seen when people contemplate the infamous Milgram experiment, where everyone apparently gives out electric shocks to strangers, while everyone systematically fails to predict this.
I dealt with this objection in my book by positing “bias mismatch” as the answer. If the person you are simulating exhibits a cognitive bias and you don’t, your simulation will fail. For example, in the case of the Milgram Experiment, the bias you are not simulating is Conformity Bias. This is also known as the Asch Effect, and basically formalises the idea that we all tend to do what we we are told to some extent. This effect is surprisingly strong.
Obviously everyone exhibits Conformity Bias on occasions, but the observers do not exhibit it in the same way the participants in the experiment. in the experiment, the subjects are told very emphatically to proceed with the shocks, the experimenter is in a lab coat, it is the 1960s so a deference culture etc. So the effects of Conformity Bias are very strong. This type and intensity of Conformity Bias is not simulated by the observers and so they are surprised by the actions of the subjects.
Now we come to the Narcissism ideas, which I will situate in the above framework. The claim is that “collective Narcissism” about the greatness of a country causes people to make poor decisions. In the case of the US, they have elected someone who promised to make their country great again. In the case of the UK, they have decided to take huge unwarranted risks with the trade position without any particular upsides in the belief that the UK is better off alone.
The claim cannot really be that substantial numbers of people are actually suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. This is because NPD subjects make up around 1% of the general population. This is quite common: many psychiatric disorders have around a 1% prevalence rate. I hypothesise that this is because if it is much less, we cannot see it, and if it is much more, we redefine it as normal!
So 1% of the population is not enough to elect a President or tilt a referendum. However, people can exhibit Narcissistic tendencies. This could be a much larger element of the population (data are sparse here). In order to look at the plausibility of that, let us consider what Narcissism looks like clinically. To help do that, I will now describe the criteria for a diagnosis of NPD.
Informally, Narcissism could be characterised as excessive self-regard, though it is perhaps unclear how one would characterise such excess and subjects can often be extremely successful high-status individuals. So in a sense, the high self-regard can be merited.
Formally, four criteria must be satisfied in order for a subject to receive a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. These are: impairments in self-functioning, impairments in interpersonal functioning, impairments in intimacy and antagonism. Each of the criteria can be exhibited in either of two ways.
Impairments in self functioning can be exhibited by excessive reference to others for self-definition and self-esteem; or goal-setting may be based excessively on the aim of obtaining approval from others.
Impairments in interpersonal functioning may be exhibited either by impaired empathy or by impaired intimacy. Empathy is defined as the ability to recognise or identify with the feelings and needs of others or a tendency to underestimate one’s own effect on others.
Impaired intimacy is seen if relationships are largely superficial and exist to mostly serve the ends of the subject.
Finally, a diagnosis also requires antagonism, which may be characterised either as grandiosity, meaning feelings of entitlement or self-centredness, or attention-seeking behaviour.
So here we see how everything fits together. I think we can agree that many more people than 1% of the population could exhibit tendencies like the above. I also think we can regard Narcissistic tendencies, which would look like the above but fall short of being fully diagnosable, as a cognitive bias. This could be much more widely prevalent in the population than the number of diagnosable subjects. If you simulate such people and you do not yourself have the same Narcissistic tendencies about the same issues, you will get it wrong. So we see how the claims that Narcissistic tendencies can explain our failure to predict the explanation of Trump and Brexit, despite abundant data pointing that way, can be because of our failure to account for something like collective Narcissism in others.