Why a Narcissist Will Never Back Down

With a partial government shutdown in the United States that began in late 2018, the efforts to overcome the stalemate between President Trump and Democratic Party (and some Republican) leaders was going nowhere as of today. In fact, an early agreement that did receive bipartisan support to resolve the dispute over the building of a border wall with Mexico is now rejected by the White House.  The President seems willing to let this partial shutdown continue indefinitely, and with each passing day, he digs his heels in even further. As you watch this high-stakes political drama play out, have you been reminded of disputes you’ve had with people who won’t back down? What was it like to be in a tug-of-war with a person whose demands continue far past the point that you consider reasonable?

The inability to see another person’s point of view and come to a compromise can be thought of as one of the hallmark qualities of narcissism. People high in this trait show little (if any empathy), become enraged if their desires are thwarted, and feel they are entitled to concessions made by the people around them. According to a new research by Polish Academy of Sciences psychologist Marta Marchlewska and colleagues (2018), people high in narcissism seem to be particularly likely to insist on “my way or the highway.” Marchlewska assembled a team of international researchers from the U.S. and England to assess the relationship between narcissism and support for democratic ideals. As they note, “support for the democratic system… is at least partially driven by psychological characteristics” (p. 2). Those most likely to favor the mix of viewpoints reflected in a democratic society should, they argue, be secure in their own self-evaluations. Those who don’t favor a democracy, in contrast, should be high on a “narcissistic self-evaluation that is easily threatened by criticism” (p. 2). In a dispute, then, people high in narcissism should seek to avoid any kind of compromise that would make them look weak.

Although Marchlewska and her fellow researchers were interested in support for democracy and not unwillingness to back down per se, their study can be seen as relevant to the situation in which one person staunchly refuses to hear someone else’s side. Relationships in which both people feel free to express their opinions, and do so in respectful ways, can also be regarded as conforming to a democratic ideal. A “family meeting” that involves parents and children, similarly, allows all members of a household to state their case, even if not every family member’s contributions are weighed equally in the final decision. The one relationship partner or family member who refuses to be open to alternate viewpoints in the decision-making process may be that narcissistic individual who acutely fears being challenged. A stalemate will arise if there is equal voting authority. If that person can exercise “executive privilege,” the situation will be resolved, but hardly in an equitable manner.

In the Polish-US-UK collaboration, the first study examined in a US sample, the relationships among self-esteem, narcissism, and support for democracy and the second extended the investigation with a Polish sample. Because Poland is a post-Communist country, the authors believed that there would generally be lower support for democratization. The research team also included a measure of trust, which they regard as “a key precondition for political tolerance and support for democracy” (p. 3). Additionally, as controls, the researchers added personality measures of right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance.

The US participants consisted of an online sample of 407 adults (182 women, 225 men) ranging from 18 to 70 years of age (average of 32 years old). Most had a college degree and were White, with most earning between $50,000 to $59,999 per year. They responded to a measure of support for democracy that contained items such as “Democracies are too inclusive and squabble too much,” and “Democracies aren’t good at maintaining order.” A standard 10-item self-esteem measure included items such as “I take a positive attitude toward myself.” To measure narcissism, the researchers administered a brief questionnaire established via previous research that include items such as “I deserve to be seen as a great personality,” and “I want my rivals to fail.” Thus, this was not a clinical measure of narcissism, but instead a trait-based index.  The right-wing authoritarianism measure consisted of items such as “What our country needs most is discipline, with everyone following their leaders in unity” and “The old fashioned ways and old fashion values still show the best way to live.” Finally, the measure of social dominance asked participants to rate items such as“We should not push for group equality." 

Using a statistical method that allowed for independent estimates of each of the main variables in the study, Marchlewska and her colleagues were able to establish that, as predicted, self-esteem was positively and narcissism was negatively related to support for democracy, controlling for authoritarianism and social dominance.  Participants in the second study were Polish adults recruited in a university library who completed paper-and-pencil measures. They were younger than the US sample, ranging from 18 to 41 years old, and most were students. In addition to the measures completed by the Study 1 participants, the members of the Polish sample also completed an interpersonal trust scale (e.g. “Most people can be trusted”). Narcissism was negatively related to support for democracy, as the authors predicted, and self-esteem positively related but only once interpersonal trust was factored into the relationship. As the authors concluded: “This suggests that only the non-narcissistic, secure form of self-evaluation is associated with support for democracy” (p. 11).

To sum up, the Marchlewska et al. study suggests what happens when a person high in the type of narcissism measured in this study refuses to go along with the democratic process. They view their own opinions as superior to others and, unlike people high in authoritarianism alone, are motivated not to resist views that they see as simply “too liberal” but by a need to avoid being challenged. It’s easy to feel discouraged about the outcome if you’re embroiled in a one of these tugs-of-war with a person high in narcissism. Your only hope is to believe that, ultimately, the democratic process will play out and you’ll be able to reach a compromise that will be fulfilling to both of you.

New research shows why narcissists insist on my way or the highway.
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In a conflict-ridden standoff, arriving at consensus can seem impossible. New research shows how this is made worse with people whose narcissism makes them feel threatened.
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Marchlewska, M., Castellanos, K. A., Lewczuk, K., Kofta, M., & Cichocka, A. (2018). My way or the highway: High narcissism and low self‐esteem predict decreased support for democracy. British Journal of Social Psychology. doi: 10.1111/bjso.12290



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