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Children of Narcissus
An evolutionary analysis of narcissism

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Malignant Narcissism

This article discusses clinical or malignant narcissism, a debilitating, incurable condition. I ask that my readers not confuse clinical narcissism with the everyday kind. In ordinary narcissism, if you disparage the narcissist's presumption, he might join you in laughing at himself. In clinical narcissism under the same circumstances, the narcissist might lapse into a narcissistic rage and try to kill you. The difference between everyday and clinical narcissism is that a clinical narcissist has no choice about his behavior, and bystanders may be crushed.

This article doesn't try to change the formal definition of clinical narcissism, instead it describes a narcissistic survival strategy that, in spite of how common it is, hasn't received nearly enough attention in the mental health literature. We will explore the deep and poorly understood connection between narcissism and authority.

But first, to avoid contributing to a popular misconception about psychology and to avoid creating the false impression that this article is based in science, I need to spend a few minutes addressing the scientific standing of human psychology. To fail to do this might add to a deplorable misconception about psychology's place among intellectual disciplines.

Science and Psychology

To restate what I've said in my other psychology articles, human psychology isn't a science. For human psychology to become a science, much better evidence would need to be collected, and to accomplish this objective certain kinds of experiments would be required, experiments that are clearly unethical.

The key property of a scientific theory is falsifiability. In mainstream science, theories are crafted to explain evidence, or evidence is collected to support theories, or both theory and evidence evolve together over time. If evidence contradicts a theory, the theory is judged to have been falsified and is discarded. This is the essence of falsifiability. It doesn't mean that all theories are false, it means all theories have the potential to be falsified by evidence.

This, by the way, is why there are no scientific laws — laws can't be challenged, only theories can be challenged, and in the philosophy of science, evidence has the highest priority. It is always possible for evidence to falsify a theory — it may be very unlikely, but the probability never falls to zero. So when you hear a science journalist describe the "law of gravity," remember — this is just a way of speaking. And if you think there is no way the "law of gravity" could possibly be repealed, consider: Einstein did just that.

What this means is that nothing rises above the status of "theory" in science, no matter how much evidence supports it. And if an idea has no evidence to support it, it is described as a hypothesis, not a theory. In science there are only theories, no laws, no absolute truths. This aspect of scientific philosophy has become a playground for religious fundamentalists, who think a theory is a hunch and that everything should be a law. This group would prefer to abandon the theory of evolution, a theory very well supported by evidence, and replace it with a law that has no evidence for it at all. That debate reveals the philosophical divide between those who honor evidence and those who honor authority, and in an interesting twist, reconnects with the topic of this article.

To summarize:

  • All theories in science must be open to potential falsification by evidence. This is called the "falsifiability criterion."
  • The falsifiability criterion requires both theory and evidence, plus a requirement that the evidence address the theory.
  • If there is only theory, no evidence, it isn't science.
  • If there is only evidence, no theory, it isn't science.
  • Disciplines that collect and describe evidence but don't create and test theories are not scientific.
  • Disciplines that craft theories but that don't collect evidence for or against their theories are not scientific.
  • Disciplines that have both evidence and theories, but the evidence and theories don't address each other, are not scientific.
I provide this level of detail because for a number of years I've been having a debate with psychologists (mostly students or new graduates) who don't understand science but who insist that psychology is a science. This doesn't say that a particular psychological idea is false, it says we can't test it in any meaningful way. Here's a hypothetical example:
  • A particular therapy is thought to be effective in preventing teenage suicide.
  • Someone designs an experiment to find out.
  • The experiment meets the most rigorous scientific standards. It has control and experimental groups, plus safeguards to keep the subjects from finding out which group they belong to (the "double-blind" criterion).
  • The study is carried out — the experimental group receives the therapy under investigation, and the control group receives a sham therapy. Neither group knows which is the "real" therapy.
  • At the end of the study, the rates of suicide are compared.

Now, try to imagine being the parent of an experimental subject who committed suicide. What would keep you from suing the scientists responsible for this ethical outrage? This is why rigorous scientific studies can't be carried out in human psychology — if there is an ethical dimension to an experiment, it can't be conducted, and there is virtually always an ethical dimension.

How often do ethical constraints prevent a study from going forward? Regularly. Here's a recent example from the online press, about an effort to explore a connection between mercury and autism/Asperger's:

Mercury Chelation to Treat Autism

A quote from the article: "This study has been suspended." It was suspended because a treatment that might alleviate autism or Asperger's would only be applied to the experimental group, not the control group (and regardless of how the study came out, someone would be sued). Also there were concerns about the safety of the treatment.

Another reference to the canceled study:

Wall Street Journal: NIH Cancels Study of Chelation as Autism Treatment

A quote from the article: "Ultimately, NIMH [National Institute of Mental Health] wasn't confident enough in the safety of the procedure to proceed ..."

What does this mean? It means because of ethical considerations we won't find out, and we may never know, whether there is a connection between mercury and autism spectrum disorders. Or, if the study had gone forward, because of the insidious nature of mercury poisoning we might have drawn an incorrect conclusion by removing all traces of mercury from the body, but too late to reverse the damage.

The only way to really know the connection between mercury and autism/Asperger's would be to design a study that ... there's no other way to put this ... deliberately poisoned children with mercury and measured the results. This is (1) a certain way to find out what effect mercury has, and (2) ethically bankrupt. Please remember this example when you hear a psychologist insist that his field is scientific.

Apart from ethical considerations, there are other difficulties in gathering psychological evidence. People don't necessarily report their subjective state reliably (the "self-reporting" problem). And the complexity of human behavior confounds the issue of experimental design, so that psychologists end up studying something they hadn't intended, as in the well-established "placebo effect," in which virtually any treatment produces a positive result for the reason that the attention being paid to the subject is more important than the specifics of the experiment.

Do these factors prevent human psychology from becoming a science? Yes, they do. Because of ethical and practical constraints, psychologists can only describe human behavior, they cannot explain it. To explain, they would have to gather evidence for or against a theory, and to gather evidence, they would have to design a study, but any realistic study would have an ethical dimension and get them sued by outraged parents and relatives.

Very simply:

  • No rigorous controlled experiments, therefore
  • No reliable evidence, therefore
  • No way to test theories against evidence, therefore
  • No possibility to falsify a theory, therefore
  • No science.

Many disciplines are properly described as "descriptive sciences," not just psychology. It is important to say that the expression "descriptive science" is a diplomatic way of saying it isn't science, it's accounting.

This article reveals something about narcissism that hasn't been adequately explored before, and it's based on field observation. But, like psychology itself, this article isn't science. I am sure my educated readers will evaluate all that follows with a healthy level of skepticism — just as they would if it really were based in science.

Narcissism and Authority

Clinical narcissism is thought to have its roots in early childhood, where for poorly understood reasons the child doesn't successfully evolve past a perfectly normal phase of infantile narcissism. This is obviously conjecture and I won't spend too much time on it, except to tell a funny story from my own experience. While visiting a family I heard the youngest child describe herself as "queen of the universe," while, across the room, mom's mouth fell open. Okay, I thought, a little infantile narcissism, although the child was a bit old for it. The next time I visited, the girl had a somewhat haunted look on her face and described herself as "princess of the universe." I thought about the change — maybe mom had warned her daughter about the consequences of giving free rein to her narcissistic fantasies. But I later discovered mom was herself a full-blown clinical narcissist and had explained to her daughter that she couldn't possibly be queen of the universe, because mom was queen of the universe, and there could only be one.

In psychological literature we find the estimate that 1% of the general population are clinical narcissists, and 75% of those are male. I personally think the 75%-male number underestimates the number of female narcissists, but that's based only on personal observation. What these figures mean is that one can hardly avoid encounters with clinical narcissists. This article may help you identify and defend against narcissists that have chosen a particular survival strategy to be explained below.

Traits of clinical narcissism include grandiosity, a lack of empathy, unrealistic self-image, a sense of entitlement, a requirement for constant praise, ruthless exploitation, profound envy of others, and arrogance. Supposedly this kind of narcissism has its roots in a deep personal insecurity and low self-esteem that paradoxically manifests itself in an acting out of its polar opposite — that of a person immune to criticism or self-doubt. In this formulation, the narcissist's public persona is an elaborate shield against pathologically low self-esteem.

The greatest fear of narcissists is exposure as the worthless person they secretly believe themselves to be, and the classic set of narcissistic behaviors is designed to protect them from this risk. If they can arrange it, narcissists surround themselves with acolytes, people technically described as "narcissistic enablers" but usually narcissists themselves, waiting their turn to be queen of the universe. But because a narcissist's acolytes are all potential rivals, this strategy produces constant tension between leader and followers. It is the thesis of this article that many narcissists discover a better strategy — an alliance with unimpeachable authority.

Attachment to unimpeachable authority is a perfect defense against a narcissist's greatest fear — exposure as a mere mortal, a flawed organism capable of error and stupidity. The latter traits are obviously the lot of real people and most of us accept reality on its own terms, but it's important to understand that narcissists are in rebellion against reality. One theory is that narcissists were exposed to the acute humiliation of being found wanting or imperfect at an age when that experience was unbearable, and they immediately erected a psychological shield against any repetition of the experience.

A pretty good shield can be constructed out of the classic narcissist behavior set, but absolute authority represents a much better defense. Ironically, narcissistic survival strategies defend the narcissist against personal growth and education to the same degree that they offer protection from reality. This is why narcissists tend to be shallow and uneducated — but it's an unanswered question whether narcissism arises from simplemindedness or the reverse. It's a given that a narcissist prefers to be secretly ignorant forever over being exposed as ignorant for five minutes.

What sort of authority is suitable for a narcissist? An ideal authority grants high status to its followers, so they can more efficiently recruit acolytes, it should be preferably rooted in the supernatural, so it can't be destroyed or disputed, and it should contain some kind of personal validation for the narcissist. Obviously religious authority tops the list, but in the hands of a sufficiently manipulative and simple-minded narcissist, any conventional source of authority can be twisted to produce the same results.

One example of exploitable authority is the law. This is not to make the claim that policemen are typically narcissists, but it is undisputed that law enforcement attracts narcissists, who eagerly look forward to the day when their actions will be beyond criticism. As it happens, this isn't the reality of a modern police officer's professional life, I'm only describing the outward impression that attracts narcissists to the field in the first place. And to some degree the initial impression is validated, enough to sustain some kinds of narcissists who enter the profession for a darker reason than "to protect and serve".

There are even disciplines that possess no authority at all, but a narcissist, who for well-established reasons is very poorly informed, might adopt them as a playground for bogus authority. As just one example, science can be a haven for narcissists, as long as they don't try to do real research. This is often accomplished by taking something that isn't science and simply labeling it science — like "Christian Science" or "Scientology" — then proceeding with a classic narcissistic game plan.

To a narcissist, religious authority is perfect. Imagine a source of authority that pretends to connect everyday life with the supernatural, demands unswerving loyalty from its followers, has terrible sanctions for breaking the rules, but the landlord, the fire-breathing rulegiver, never visits his ranch, leaving all the authority to his followers. Religion is so perfectly suited to the needs of clinical narcissists that one might be tempted to say narcissists invented it for their own purposes. But we won't go there.

The point of these examples, and more to follow, is that narcissism so completely distorts reality that a narcissistic survival strategy is necessarily escapist. The narcissist doesn't want to experience reality, he wants to enforce a fantasy, one in which the narcissist isn't a mere mortal but an infallible, perfect being. In the long run, the narcissist's strategy always fails because it contradicts reality, but in the intervening months, years or decades, many victims may fall by the wayside. The purpose of this article is to supply enough information that a reader may successfully identify, and defend against, a narcissist who is using the authority strategy.


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