[blog cross-post] So-called communal narcissists

post by Holly_Elmore · 2018-12-12T20:37:24.046Z · EA · GW · 1 comments

This was originally posted on my blog on 7-29-16. I think it's high up on the Google results for "communal narcissism," because it's consistently my most read post. That's one reason I won't update it, even though I don't feel exactly the same as when I wrote this. See the original post here with my pretty featured image (please subscribe while you're there!) and please also check out the follow-up post, More on narcissism, either on my blog or once I cross-post it here. I plan to cross-post all my old EA-relevant posts here eventually. New EA-tagged posts will be automatically cross-posted.

So I came across this article on facebook the other day: The Communal Narcissist: Another Wolf Wearing a Sheep Outfit from Psychology Today. My first thought, which the article did not address, was Why does the title says “sheep outfit” instead of the more common and more poetic “sheep’s clothing?” I was hoping there would be some clever metaphorical reason, but sadly, no. It appears the author just got the expression wrong with no deeper message intended.

Now, to get to the topic of the article– so-called “communal narcissists.” Here’s how the article explains what they are:

Surprisingly, while this [communal] narcissist shares characteristics with the other two [extrovert and introvert narcissists]—these are all people who continuously seek to validate their self-perceived grandiosity, esteem, entitlement, and power—this type focuses on promoting him or herself through commitment to others, communal goals, and the supposed ability to listen and connect. Yes, this is very counterintuitive (aren’t narcissists supposed to be out for themselves?), but a strong case has been made for these supposed do-gooder types. Here is how Malkin explains them in his book:
“[T]hey regard themselves as especially nurturing, understanding, and empathic. They proudly announce how much they give to charity or how little they spend on themselves. They trap you in a corner at a party and whisper excitedly about how thoughtful they’ve been to their grieving next-door neighbor. That’s me—I’m a born listener! They believe themselves better than the rest of humanity, but cherish their status as givers, not takers.”
Researchers have developed a Communal Narcissism Inventory,which asks participants to signify their agreement or disagreement with the following statements about themselves on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 for strongly disagree and 7 for strongly agree:
I am the most helpful person I know.
I am going to bring peace and justice to the world.
I am the best friend someone can have.
I will be well known for the good deeds I will have done.
I am (going to be) the best parent on this planet.
I am the most caring person in my social surrounding.
In the future, I will be well known for solving the world’s problems.
I greatly enrich others’ lives.
I will bring freedom to the people.
I am an amazing listener.
I will be able to solve world poverty.
I have a very positive influence on others.
I am generally the most understanding person.
I’ll make the world a much more beautiful place.
I am extraordinarily trustworthy.
I will be famous for increasing people’s well-being.
Some of these sound pretty grandiose (solving the world’s problems or global poverty) until you realize that anyone running for any office—it could be President, but it could be the election for head of the PTA, too—makes lots of statements that sound just like these; he or she promises to fix whatever no one else has been able to. And the other self-flattering statements are doubtless catnip to this particular narcissistic type’s ego and really don’t sound that far out. After all, don’t we all think we are trustworthy and a good listener?

Can a narcissist get a break here? They can’t even take pride in trying to be pro-social?

But here’s the kicker (my emphasis):

Keep in mind that this is how the narcissist likes to think of him or herself. The reality is that he or she lacks the ability to empathize,* is still a game-player, and carries all the other traits generally associated with narcissism. He or she is involved in community only as a validation of self.

As if that nullifies their involvement in the community! As if doing good can somehow falsely represent being good. The implication here is that community involvement is only valuable if it reflects pure motives– basically, doing good for others is really about your character. That is so ass-backwards.

Understanding communal narcissism explains why sometimes women and men who are largely viewed as “pillars of the community” and known for their devotion to charities and other causes can be highly destructive and unloving in their personal roles as friends, husbands, wives, fathers, and mothers.

Why do we view people’s behavior in personal relationships as the ultimate measure of their worth? Why is non-kin altruism belied by struggles within the family? The article goes on to describe the motives of the communal narcissist as “hypocritical.”

In their article on communal narcissism, Jochen Gebauer and his colleagues note that just as an agentic narcissist (the one who defines himself through actions that show him to be superior) will be liked and even admired until people catch on, the communal narcissist also enjoys initial admiration but will fall out of favor even more drastically because of the hypocritical nature of his or her motives.

Is it really hypocrisy to want to help– and be known for helping– the community while simultaneously being a jerk one-on-one? How are those not just different things, one of them good and one of them bad? And how is it any less hypocritical to care only about your family and not strangers? If someone is unpleasant interpersonally, that’s a fine reason not to be friends with them, but it doesn’t nullify or disprove any actual good they have done.

It would be a totally different story if the communal narcissist only appearsto do good. But the author is not talking about fraudsters. She’s talking about people who actually do all the community service they are praised for. The author implies at one point that the person’s bad character will ultimately implode any communal efforts they undertake, but it is not obvious to me that this will happen or that it will lead them to have a net-negative impact in the end.

Are you still a narcissist if you do nothing for anyone? Or are you just lazy? Do-gooders are worthy of condemnation when they do good “for validation of the self,” but do-nothings apparently haven’t done anything wrong. Do-nothings might be just as selfish, for all we know, but at least they can’t be called hypocrites. There is no attempt at cost-benefit thinking here. Is it worse for someone to be cold and unloving in their personal lives or for a warm friend to do nothing for the community? Could someone just care more about helping people in the community than about being nice to friends and family? It is just assumed that the communal narcissist’s interactions with those closest to them reveal their true character, and bad character belies any seemingly altruistic act towards those they aren’t so close with.

Notice that we almost never say this about professionals whose jobs cause them to neglect their families, especially if they are in a helping profession. I rarely hear complaints that doctors on call are negligent fathers. They are just workaholics at most. I hear frequently that moms who volunteer need to take care of their own children at home.** We judge people who do more than they have to at work, or who try to help people they aren’t “responsible” for, like non-relatives or people they don’t know. The assumption running unnoticed throughout this article and much of society is that helping non-kin is extra credit, and you can’t go for extra credit until you’ve completed your assigned home duties. (How can you have your pudding if you don’t have any meat?!)

There are plenty of plausible evolutionary reasons to be wary of communal narcissists: More investment from parents translates into better life outcomes for children, increasing their likelihood of survival to reproduction and reproductive success. Kin do not want benefits embezzled from the family where they could contribute to inclusive fitness and given to the wider community just to benefit one family member’s reputation. Children want more attention from their parents, especially their mothers, and feel righteously entitled to it. Community members are wary of ostentatious gift-giving, because it can be a grab for status that ultimately comes at the receiver’s expense. Everyone is cynical about everyone else’s motives for helping others under the general theory of mind assumption that people don’t do things that don’t ultimately benefit them.

It makes perfect sense that our biases would be in favor of our relatives and friends, and that we would naturally favor norms of obligation to those people before strangers. It is also perfectly rational to structure society so that most people can do their part by taking care of those close to them. What I don’t understand is how people can be so uncritical in their normative judgments of people who privilege family somewhat less over others. Why is the communal narcissist a “wolf in a sheep outfit” instead of just a sheep who seeks status through herd-building? There’s a deep irony in judging others by a standard of personal friendship and labeling themselfish if we wouldn’t like them. Maybe we should imagine ourselves as the recipient of their altruism instead.

*The article jumps off from Dr. Craig Malkin’s book Rethinking Narcissism. I bought the kindle version of this book and immediately suspected this article had misinterpreted it. Listen to the subtitle: The bad– and surprising good– about feeling special. The book is about navigating between too self-absorbed and too self-effacing, not about condemning narcissism per se.  It defines narcissism as a spectrum we slide up and down on throughout our lives, and only mentions lack of empathy as characteristic of pathological levels of narcissism. Dr. Malkin only mentions communal narcissists a handful of times. For the purposes of this post, however, I’m going to take the article at face value.
**I chose the above examples advisedly. Moms are disproportionately judged compared to Dads for devoting emotional energy away from the family. (I say this from experience. I felt shafted by my Mom’s constant volunteering and church involvement on top of her full-time job. My Dad spent way less time with us and was way less emotionally giving, but because it was ostensibly for his job, I was less angry at him.) My conjecture on why this is that Dads are fulfilling their primary duties to their families when they work long hours, because they are providing. Mom’s work outside the home is already seen as secondary to her duty to the family at home, and if that work is primarily benefiting other families, it’s doubly gratuitous. Spending emotional resources on other people can almost be seen as a form of emotional embezzlement from a mother’s own children, who have rightful dibs her attention.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2018-12-14T00:23:04.615Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Arguments of the type made by that article always sound to me like this:

"It's foolish to invest in Apple, because Steve Jobs is a corporate narcissist: He only cares about his own vision and self-aggrandizement. Maximizing shareholder value is just his way of getting attention."

It's not a perfect parallel, given the real concern that someone who does good for their own ego may stop doing good if it stops feeling rewarding (while Steve Jobs is guaranteed to keep being famous while Apple prospers). But since nearly everyone has at least some level of egocentric motivation, the solution for a group that really cares about doing good is closer to "show more appreciation and reward good work" than "watch out for communal narcissists".