A Small Price to Pay:
National Narcissism and In-group Sacrifice in the COVID-19 Pandemic
History has witnessed countless examples of self-proclaimed patriots who claim to love their country, but yet support decisions that may inflict severe harm to their own communities. People sometimes support hopeless wars and refuse external aid with the aim of defending the nation’s honour or to spite an adversary, but all too often the nation itself ends up suffering the consequences. A current example is the COVID-19 pandemic, in which protection of the citizens and the nation’s image on the world stage have often been pitted against each other. In a series of studies, we examined how people’s levels national narcissism may covary with policies that may undermine their own nation’s well-being and health, but in exchange for a positive image to the outside world.
National narcissism is a grandiose belief in one’s nation’s greatness together with an insecure feeling that the nation is not appreciated by others (Cichocka, 2016). To put it simply, those high in national narcissism are concerned with the impeccable image of their national group, demand external recognition for its alleged greatness, and will defend its positive identity ruthlessly (Golec de Zavala et al., 2009). Consequently, they are oversensitive to what they perceive as criticism or lack of recognition, and are therefore hostile and prejudiced towards other countries, support acts of discrimination or violence, seek revenge or defend past atrocities (Golec de Zavala et al., 2016).
We were interested in examining how this insecurity about how others see one’s nation affects attitudes towards compatriots. Just how far do those high in national narcissism go in protecting the idealistic image of their nation? Previous research has shown that they may turn on their own in-group by supporting harmful policies regarding the natural environment, all to make the point that their country will not be bossed around by outsiders (Cislak et al., 2018). However, in this research, we asked our participants more explicitly whether they would sacrifice their compatriots to improve the country’s image on the world stage. To do this, we conducted three quantitative survey studies in the United Kingdom and the United States in context of controversies about the COVID-19 pandemic. All results reported are based on multiple regression analyses.
In the early weeks of the pandemic, the UK was in the “transition period” on its way out of the European Union. It was still invited by the EU to join the so-called “ventilator scheme”, a collaboration in which its huge purchasing power was utilised to procure medical equipment in bulk. As a vivid example of image defence, the UK government responded that it would not accept this invitation because the “UK is now an independent nation” (BBC News, 2020). Prime Minister Boris Johnson was subsequently accused of sacrificing British lives (Stone, 2020).
We recruited 298 British participants via Facebook in March 2020. We evaluated their level of national narcissism and probed their attitudes relating to the refusal to join the scheme. We found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that Britons high in national narcissism did not want to cooperate with the EU on the COVID-19 response. But they went even further: Those high in national narcissism agreed with statements such as “Even if refusing to participate in the EU scheme ends up hurting British people, it would still have been the right decision”. Essentially, people high in national narcissism agreed with the idea that sacrificing British lives was worth it, just to spite the EU.
These results made us curious about the situation in the United States. Many US politicians and commentators perpetuated rhetoric about the handling of COVID-19 seemingly driven by the desire to make America look strong and undefeatable. For example, then-President Donald Trump was preoccupied with how the media displayed “unfair” comparisons to other countries in terms of numbers of COVID-19 cases, proposing that testing for the virus should be reduced (Begley, 2020). We recruited 399 Americans and had them read a short summary of this argument, explaining that while reduced testing would certainly pose a danger to citizen’s health and lives, it would indeed artificially improve the case numbers. This strategy seemed to appeal to those high in national narcissism, despite warning about its danger, and they supported reducing the testing program if it made America look better.
In our third study, we relied on yet another controversy in the US. In late summer 2020, the long-awaited COVID-19 vaccine was finally in sight, as early trials suggested it was effective against the virus. While this certainly gave hope, concluding scientific trials would still take months more. This posed a dilemma: A vaccine that had not been fully tested might risk people’s health, but releasing the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine would be seen as a great scientific achievement an opportunity to spite adversaries. We recruited 401 American participants and explained to them the risks associated with a premature vaccine launch, but also that it would indeed be a good opportunity to showcase America’s success. Which to pick? Yet again, we found an association between national narcissism and sacrificial attitudes: Those who scored high in national narcissism supported an early release of the vaccine despite the risks involved.
What motivated our participants in all three studies to put their fellow citizens’ lives on the line by prioritising national image over people’s well-being? Mediation analyses suggested that our participants were guided by concerns about their country’s reputation. In the UK, those high on national narcissism were concerned that cooperating with the EU would damage the country’s reputation. In the US, they were concerned that true case numbers would make America look bad, and likewise if other countries beat it to the punch in releasing the first COVID-19 vaccine. In other words, those high on national narcissism were seemingly willing to sacrifice compatriots to save their nation’s face in the eyes of the world.
What is the take-away message from our findings? First, it is often the ones that claim to love their country the most and demand recognition from others most loudly, who may end up inflicting harm on it. Our findings may also help explain why leaders who are overly concerned with their nation’s image sometimes make decisions that end up harming their own constituents. Those high in national narcissism may be especially prone to follow image-centred leadership like that of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson (Marchlewska et al., 2018).
More broadly, the results tell a story of how the psychology of the individual can affect society at large. Individuals who are frustrated in their personal lives tend to alleviate their agony by seeking comfort in great collectives, such as their nation (Cichocka, 2016; Fromm, 1973). Their goal is to feel better about themselves, not benefit their nation. Since their commitment is self-serving, those high in national narcissism have little concern for their compatriots. They view them as cannon-fodder; a sacrifice well worth it in exchange for a better social comparison with others: A social comparison that makes those high in national narcissism feel better about themselves personally. For people high in national narcissism, sacrificing fellow citizens may therefore be a small price to pay to achieve the longed-for national glory.
About the authors.
Bjarki Gronfeldt is a PhD Student in Political Psychology at the University of Kent. Aleksandra Cichocka is a Reader in Political Psychology at the University of Kent. Aleksandra Cislak is an Associate Professor in Psychology at SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities. Anni Sternisko is a PhD Student in Social Psychology at New York University. Irem Eker is a PhD Student in Social Psychology at the University of Kent.
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