In recent years, researchers have been tracking an increase in narcissism among young people, along with a decline in support for democracy. A new study suggests these troubling trends may be related.
It finds that self-centered citizens in both the United States and Poland express less support for democracy than their other-oriented counterparts.
"For the functioning of democracy, it seems useful to foster positive feelings of self-worth," writes a research team led by psychologist Aleksandra Cichocka of the University of Kent. "But if those become narcissistic, they can threaten the democratic process."
"We need to make sure we are not fostering feelings of entitlement, or expectations of special treatment," Cichocka warned in announcing the findings.
The paper, published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, describes two studies. One featured 407 Americans, the other 405 Poles.
In each, participants responded to a series of statements designed to measure their support for democracy, as well as their levels of self-esteem and self-centeredness. The latter was estimated by their level of agreement with assertions such as, "I like to be the center of attention" and "I deserve to be seen as a great personality."
The key result: In both the long-established democracy and the relatively new and fragile one, people with higher levels of narcissism were more tepid in their endorsement of democracy. Specifically, they were more likely to agree with statements such as, "Democracies are indecisive and squabble too much" and "Democracies aren't good at maintaining order."
Not surprisingly, people who held right-wing authoritarian views (measured only in the American sample) were less likely to endorse democratic values. But even after that mindset was taken into account, narcissism was still associated with lower support for freedom-based, representative government.
Why would these two tendencies work in tandem? "Narcissists have high feelings of self-worth, but tend to be defensive," the researchers explain. "They are easily threatened by criticism or conflicting views," which are bedrock features of a democratic system.
In addition, "narcissists seem to regard others' narcissistic traits in a positive way," they add. This may lead them "to favor non-democratic parties led by narcissistic individuals."
While all this may point to a bleak prognosis, keep in mind that the evidence is still coming in. Some scholars argue that widespread anti-democracy attitudes have been exaggerated, and, as Cichocka notes, "the jury is out on whether new generations are becoming more narcissistic than previous ones."
But whether or not we are moving in a disturbing direction, Americans have handed an enormous amount of power to a narcissist from an older generation. This new research adds to the fears that, given the opportunity, he wouldn't hesitate to use that power in an undemocratic way.