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Narcissism and politics: good or bad combination in times of crisis?
_Eco and Narcissus_ (John William Waterhouse, 1903). Wikimedia Commons The term narcissism was widely used by psychoanalysts to describe those people who seemed to be in love with themselves or, as it is commonly said, “are delighted to have met.” But what elements make up the narcissistic personality? Without going into the pathological aspects described in the psychiatric literature, the most recent research has considered that the two facets that are integrated in narcissism are the search for admiration and rivalry. Both serve to maintain a positive image of yourself. Following the scheme shown in the attached figure, people with pronounced traits of narcissism have a special ability to detect in which situations they may or may not give themselves “self-talk”. In the first case, the person ruthlessly launches into self-promotion, to show off his achievements, to try to seduce the audience. In the event that the environment is not the most favorable to talk about your multiple successes, you may try to ridicule or dismiss some of those who are being the center of the meeting. At the same time, self-promoting and neglecting behaviors could provoke reactions that either generate admiration, or, otherwise, rejection, which would trigger one or the other process again. Are political leaders more narcissistic than voters? In recent years, two interesting lines of research have been developed that relate politics to narcissism. On the one hand, it was important to know if political leaders were, or are, increasingly more or less narcissistic; and on the other, to find out if it is precisely narcissistic traits that favor the people who possess them to get involved in politics. To solve the first question, Watts and collaborators carried out a study that tried to know the degree of narcissism of the last 42 US presidents, ending with George W. Bush. The authors concluded that in American presidential history an increase in the degree of narcissism was observed and that its leaders had traits of narcissism higher than the American average. The positive part of the study was that the more narcissistic presidents were more active in setting their political agendas or tackling crises, as well as in their persuasiveness. While the refusal was evidenced by the high number of challenges they received in Congress and by unethical behavior. The second question has recently been addressed in another study in which researchers analyzed the interviews of 5,230 citizens from Denmark and the US Respondents were asked to report how often they had participated in each of the following Actions: Sign petitions, boycott or buy products for political reasons, participate in demonstrations, attend political meetings, contact leaders, make social donations, contact the media, and participate in political forums. The authors found positive correlations between narcissism scores and political participation for both Danish and North American citizens. However, they found no association between the degree of narcissism and their turnout, possibly due to the high turnout that year in the Danish elections (88%). Other interesting findings from the study were that subjects with high scores for authority seeking, perceived leadership ability, and feelings of superiority frequently participated in political activities. For the authors, this association made a lot of sense: if a person believes that they have the qualities of a leader, participating in political activity could be a way of exercising that sense of “moral superiority.” Why are narcissistic leaders more dangerous in times of crisis? The results of the aforementioned works indicate that narcissistic politicians can obtain positive results, as would be the case of Alexander the Great, and also negative ones, such as that of Benito Mussolini. Leaders with strong narcissistic traits are often talkative, valued for the ease with which they get on in social relationships and for their ability to achieve fame, despite their credited little talent. They are very adept at selling their ideas as innovative, even without being so. On the contrary, the dark side of these leaders is characterized by their overconfidence when making decisions, their capacity for deception and their difficulties in learning from their mistakes. All of them put their wishes before the needs of the organizations they lead and the lack of ethics in political activity becomes the norm. In complex social situations, such as economic crises, people tend to interpret signals that reflect self-confidence as indications of ability. The confidence conveyed by “smoke sellers” can convince many people that he or she is the best leader in a country in crisis. The other side of the coin is that this overexpression of self-confidence is found especially among narcissistic leaders. It could be said that economic crises are the fertile ground for the perfect storm: a society in need of leaders who are capable of piloting the recovery and leaders capable of promising what the public is willing to hear, but who, once they have achieved power. They will take care of what only satisfies them or them: feed their vanity. Something similar pointed out the Nobel Prize winner Bertrand Russell when he lamented the rise of German Nazism: “The fundamental cause of the problem is that in the modern world the stupid are conceited, while the intelligent are full of doubts.” These considerations have a special importance in the design of the campaigns. On the one hand, because many leaders tend to include on their agendas those issues that “the voters want.” On the other hand, if the most active potential voters are precisely those with the highest scores on narcissism, it is quite possible that the policy outcome will focus on the proposals of the more selfish constituency. Maximizing personal benefit at the expense of others This segment of society prefers to lead and have authority over others, with the aim of maximizing personal benefit at the expense of others. These findings are in line with the theory of participation centered on self-interest and instrumental motivations: “I vote for those who promise what I selfishly desire.” In conclusion, it is highly probable that, in the current crises, political agendas include, in a different and manifest way, those questions posed by the most active groups, which according to the study would be those with the greatest traits of narcissism, and therefore affect specific sectors, leaving aside far-reaching policies for the common good. What alternatives does the voter have to elect their political leaders? How to distinguish between competition and excessive self-confidence? Doubting who to vote for in times of crisis is not an easy task. Leadership experts like Chamorro-Premuzic caution that in such a situation, before deciding to vote, citizens should analyze the competence and sense of security of the leader for whom they have shown sympathy. By competence is understood “what one knows how to do”, while by self-confidence, “what one says one can do”. In most cases, citizens do not have the curriculum vitae of politicians. In addition, many of them are in charge of putting on makeup, so it is very possible that the voter has to be attentive to those behaviors that denote a high narcissism, since, as has been shown, if the daffodils manage to govern a town hall, a community autonomous or the country, the negative effects are usually more devastating and damaging to democracy and society than the possible gains from being governed by one of them. Women sit on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the 2018 Women’s March on Washington, demonstrating against the administration and policies of the narcissistic President Trump. Shutterstock / bakdc Robotic portrait of a narcissistic leader Based on what has been published in the scientific literature, below we summarize the personality characteristics of narcissistic leaders: They promise quick and simple solutions that benefit everyone (or that harm a sector of society upon which accusations of selfishness are leveled). They promise benefits for the country at the cost of going against other countries (remember that of “America first”). They have no respect for the political adversary. There is no empathy for the adversary, nor for the citizenry. They persevere in mistakes (explaining that they do so out of conviction of success). They respond aggressively and ruthlessly to criticism (especially from the media). They try to convince citizens that they are the only real alternative. They try to polarize politics, which allows them to ignore the adversary and show off their “approaches.” They exhibit little or no ethical principles. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original. The signatories are not salaried, or consultants, nor do they own shares, nor do they receive financing from any company or organization that can obtain benefit from this article, and they have declared that they lack relevant links beyond the academic position mentioned above.