Derived from the Greek myth of Narcissus, the caricature of a classic “narcissist” is someone who is manipulative, entitled, lacking in empathy, obsessed with grandiose fantasies about power and admiration, and abuses relationships for personal gain. Not surprisingly, then, narcissism is a purported attribute of many powerful leaders, including both destructive leaders, like Saddam Hussein and Dick Fuld of Lehman Brothers infamy, but also victors against tyranny like Winston Churchill and visionaries like Steve Jobs. One school of thought even suggests that individuals may select narcissistic leaders in order to protect their own narcissistic sense of superiority.
But narcissism is not necessarily confined to individuals. In fact, recent research has moved toward documenting the notion of collective narcissism, that is, unrealistic exaggerations about the greatness of an entire group of people. And if narcissism is a trait that can be applied to both individuals and groups, can the same logic extend to entire societies?
New research provides preliminary evidence that it can be, via a concept that the researchers call “national narcissism.” In particular, the researchers were first motivated by the use of common appeals from leaders in the United States to "American exceptionalism"—the idea that the U.S. is unique among the nations of the world. But do people in the U.S. truly believe this to be the case? And do people in other countries feel similarly about their country? And perhaps most important, can such feelings of uniqueness be attributed to an inflated and exaggerated (that is to say, narcissistic) sense of one's country? In a large international survey, that is indeed what the authors found—students around the world collectively and consistently provided exaggerated estimates about the importance of their own country.
The authors reached this conclusion by surveying nearly 7,000 university students from 35 different countries, ranging from the United States and Germany to Hong Kong, South Korea, Peru, and New Zealand. In a clever attempt to measure national narcissism, the researchers asked students a deceptively difficult question; “What contribution do you think the country you are living in has made to world history”? Possible answers ranged from 0% to 100%. In other words, if you think about this carefully, the total contribution from all countries around the world should add up to 100%. The question is asking about the relative contribution of your own country to world history, for example, say a modest 10%.
Although it is nearly impossible to know what the “right” or “accurate” answer is for any particular country, in the aggregate, the answers added up to a whopping 1156%. This suggests that some might be exaggerating the importance of their own country’s contribution to world history. With nearly 200 countries in the world, the "correct" answer, on average, should be just barely above half a percent, a number so small that, as the authors note, it’s probably unrealistic to expect the research to return a total nearly as low as 100%.
Interestingly, average estimates differed widely across countries, from a very modest 11% for Switzerland to a stunning 61% for Russia. Perhaps surprisingly, the United States did not stand out in particular with 30%—right about in the middle—and below not just the UK (55%), India (54%), Italy (44%), and China (42%), but also Malaysia (49%), Canada (40%), and Fiji (36%), among others. Overall, in nearly half of the countries surveyed, average respondents said their country contributed at least 33% to world history.
The researchers correlated world history contribution estimates with questions designed to tap into feelings about national identity. As expected, on average, individuals who displayed greater pride and loyalty toward their countries gave higher estimates of their country’s unique contribution to world history. Yet, interestingly, this association varied strongly by country, with no relationship at all between national identity and perceived influence on world history for some countries (e.g. Austria, China) whereas small to medium correlations emerged for others (e.g. Russia, Italy, Australia).
Regardless of accuracy, with Russia at 61% or even the United States at 30%, these estimates seem to significantly depart from what one might call a realistic account of history. So what could explain these severely inflated estimates of the influence of our nations on world history? Intriguingly, the researchers hypothesize that the phenomenon may be driven by the availability heuristic: when we think about world history, we mostly think about the history of our own country, hence inferring that we must be important.
Unfortunately, the researchers did not include any established personality scales to directly measure either individual or collective narcissism in their cross-national survey. Measuring self-reported narcissism, even with a single-question, might have significantly bolstered the case for a conceptual relationship between such inflated estimates and the specific trait of “narcissism.” In addition, the survey was neither representative of the individuals within each country nor of world geography (e.g., Greece, France and many countries in Africa were not included).
Despite these limitations, the question of whether countries can be “narcissistic” is an interesting one. For example, consider robust research that has shown that neighbourhoods, just like individuals, can vary on personality traits, such as the extent to which they are open, neurotic, or conscientious. Openness, for instance, is associated with curiosity and creativity. Accordingly, researchers find that openness at the U.S. state level reveals consistency with macro-level social indicators such as liberal values and proportions of individuals with careers in the arts. Yet, unlike openness, national narcissism—as measured through the estimated influence of one’s own country on world history—could just as easily reflect a cognitive bias or media influence through elite cues (e.g., grandiose statements from Putin or Trump), rather than a stable and enduring personality trait. Or, it could reflect a relatively normal positive view of one's country rather than “narcissism” (even at the individual level it is difficult to distinguish healthy self-esteem from true narcissism).
Indeed, what is a healthy level of love and admiration for one’s country?
Although this is a difficult question, there’s a large amount of research that speaks to the dark side of too much in-group love. Indeed, the presumed moral or social superiority of one nation over another can lead to a desire to dominate and denigrate other countries. In this way, national narcissism parallels individual narcissism as a predictor of interpersonal aggression and retaliation if the narcissist feels threatened, unadmired, or unrecognized.
At any rate, it remains unclear how to best counter national narcissism trends. Perhaps next time someone queries us about the role of our nations in determining the course of world history, we might take a moment to reflect on the varied and impressive contributions others have made. Let us remember that in turbulent times, working together cooperatively has led to many great achievements that extend far beyond any single individual or country. Or, as Thomas Hood once put it, when was honey ever made with one bee in a hive?