Monday, October 27, 2014

Tribal Narcissism

I discovered this in the Sept./Oct. issue of "Psychology Today".

By Jeffrey Kluger, published on September 02, 2014 - last reviewed on September 10, 2014


narcissists, like it or not, are also all of us. You may not be a narcissist and no single member of your social circle may be a narcissist, but collectively—in our communities, our nations, our political parties, our sports team loyalties, and, scarily, in our races and religions—we are all narcissists. There's personal narcissism and tribal narcissism—and that second kind can be a global affliction.

The narcissism of a tribe can be a wonderful, terrible, lovely, bloody, life-giving, life-taking thing—sometimes all at once. It's present in the harmless exhibitionism of the sign-waving, face-painted fans at the Super Bowl or the World Cup. It's in the faintly darker, more jingoistic chants of "U.S.A! U.S.A.!" that may accompany an Olympic hockey win or an ill-planned invasion of Iraq. It's part of every company softball game ever played—techies versus sales, design versus manufacture—and every blue state versus red state argument ever had. It's the Whigs versus the Tories, the Bolsheviks versus the Mensheviks, the Union versus the Confederacy. It's soldiers who race into the field risking death and ducking crossfire to save a wounded comrade and then, that job done, turn their fire outward and take other lives with the same resolve and pride with which they just saved one.

Human beings are social creatures—a very important adaptation allowing soft, slow, fangless, clawless ground-dwellers like us to survive. But being social implies bands, and bands imply favoring your own above all others. And because we're rational creatures, too—creatures who like to feel good about ourselves and don't like to think we seize land and resources and mates simply because we're greedy—we tell ourselves that we favor our own kind because we're smarter, prettier, better, more virtuous, more caring—a superior breed of people in a world filled with lesser ones.

Those feelings may exist in us naturally and unavoidably, but they are also dangerously easy to manipulate—with an anthem, a chant, a little scrap of flag.


Race began as a few bits of coding that reflected nothing more than the climactic and geographical adaptations a migrating species had to make if it were going to survive in a new land—darker pigmentation to afford protection from the sun in tropical latitudes, lighter skin to absorb what sunlight there is in cold, damp northern regions. "We didn't start off as a multiracial species," says psychologist Liz Phelps, the director of New York University's Lab of Learning, Decisions, and the Neuroscience of Affect. "We have races simply because we dispersed."

But early in human history, those differences began to take on an outsize meaning for us. Like it or not, the tribe you know is much more inclined to protect you than is the tribe you don't, whose members see you as alien at best and a competitor for resources at worst. No sooner are children old enough to toddle away from the campfire than they develop a sharp antenna for otherness, perceiving differences they may never have noticed before.


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