Pathological Narcissism, Group Behaviour, and Terrorism

Published: 12th January 2007
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Pathological Narcissism, Group Behaviour, and Terrorism

By: Sam Vaknin

1. What is pathological narcissism?

All of us have narcissistic TRAITS. Some of us even develop a
narcissistic PERSONALITY. Moreover, narcissism is a SPECTRUM of
behaviours - from the healthy to the utterly pathological (known as
the Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or NPD).

The DSM IV uses this language:

"An all-pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behaviour),
need for admiration or adulation and lack of empathy, usually
beginning by early adulthood and present in various contexts."

Here are the 9 criteria. Having 5 of these 9 "qualifies" you as a

Feels grandiose and self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements
and talents to the point of lying, demands to be recognized as
superior without commensurate achievements)
Is obsessed with fantasies of unlimited success, fame, fearsome power
or omnipotence, unequalled brilliance (the cerebral narcissist),
bodily beauty or sexual performance (the somatic narcissist), or
ideal, everlasting, all-conquering love or passion Firmly convinced
that he or she is unique and, being special, can only be understood
by, should only be treated by, or associate with, other special or
unique, or high-status people (or institutions)
Requires excessive admiration, adulation, attention and affirmation -
or, failing that, wishes to be feared and to be notorious
(narcissistic supply).
Feels entitled. Expects unreasonable or special and favourable
priority treatment. Demands automatic and full compliance with his
or her expectations Is "interpersonally exploitative", i.e., uses
others to achieve his or her own ends Devoid of empathy. Is unable
or unwilling to identify with or acknowledge the feelings and needs
of others Constantly envious of others or believes that they feel the
same about him or her Arrogant, haughty behaviours or attitudes
coupled with rage when frustrated, contradicted, or confronted.
The language in the criteria above is based on or summarized from:

American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and
statistical manual of mental disorders, fourth edition (DSM IV).
Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

Sam Vaknin. (1999, 2001). Malignant Self Love - Narcissism
Revisited, second, revised printing Prague and Skopje: Narcissus
("Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited"

More Data About Pathological Narcissists

Most narcissists (75%) are men.
NPD (=the Narcissistic Personality Disorder) is one of a "family" of
personality disorders (formerly known as "Cluster B"). Other members:
Borderline PD, Antisocial PD and Histrionic PD.
NPD is often diagnosed with other mental health disorders ("co-
morbidity") - or with substance abuse, or impulsive and reckless
behaviours ("dual diagnosis").
NPD is new (1980) mental health category in the Diagnostic and
Statistics Manual (DSM).
There is only scant research regarding narcissism. But what there is
has not demonstrated any ethnic, social, cultural, economic, genetic,
or professional predilection to NPD.
It is estimated that 0.7-1% of the general population suffer from NPD.
Pathological narcissism was first described in detail by Freud.
Other major contributors are: Klein, Horney, Kohut, Kernberg, Millon,
Roningstam, Gunderson, Hare.
The onset of narcissism is in infancy, childhood and early
It is commonly attributed to childhood abuse and trauma inflicted by
parents, authority figures, or even peers.
There is a whole range of narcissistic reactions - from the mild,
reactive and transient to the permanent personality disorder.
Narcissists are either "Cerebral" (derive their narcissistic supply
from their intelligence or academic achievements) - or "Somatic"
(derive their narcissistic supply from their physique, exercise,
physical or sexual prowess and "conquests").
Narcissists are either "Classic" - see definition below - or they
are "Compensatory", or "Inverted" - see definitions here: "The
Inverted Narcissist".
NPD is treated in talk therapy (psychodynamic or cognitive-
The prognosis for an adult narcissist is poor, though his adaptation
to life and to others can improve with treatment. Medication is
applied to side-effects and behaviours (such as mood or affect
disorders and obsession-compulsion) - usually with some success.

2. Human collectives (nations, professions, ethnic groups) and
narcissism - stereotyping or racism?

Having lived in 12 countries in 3 continents now, I firmly believe
in "mass psychopathology", or in ethnopsychology. The members of a
group - if sufficiently cohesive - tend to react similarly to

By "cohesive" I mean, if they share the same mental world
("Weltanschauung") - possibly the same history, the same language or
dialect, the same hopes, folklore, fears, and aspirations ("agenda"),
the same enemies and so on.

Thus, if recurrently traumatized or abused by external or internal
forces, a group of people may develop the mass equivalent of
pathological narcissism as a defence or compensatory mechanism.
By "abuse" and "trauma" I mean any event, or series of events, or
circumstances, which threaten the self identity, self image, sense of
self worth, and self esteem of the collective consistently and
constantly - though often arbitrarily and unpredictably. Human
collectives go through formation, individuation, separation - all the
phases in individual psychological development. A disturbance in the
natural and unhindered progression of these phases is likely to
result in psychopathology of all the members of the collective.
Being subjugated to another nation, being exiled, enduring genocide,
being destitute, being defeated in warfare - are all traumatic
experiences with far reaching consequences.

The members of the collective form a "condensate" (in physical
terms) - a material in which all the atoms vibrate with the same
frequency. Under normal circumstances, group behaviour resembles
diffuse light. Subject to trauma and abuse - it forms a malignant
laser - a strong, same wavelength, potentially destructive beam. The
group becomes abusive to others, exploitative, detached from reality,
bathed in grandiose fantasies, xenophobic, lacking empathy, prone to
uncontrolled rages, over-sensitive, convinced of its superiority and
entitlement. Force and coercion are often required to disabuse such
a group of its delusions.

But, this of course, only cements its narcissism and justifies its
distorted perception of the world.

Consider the case of the Jews.

The Jews have been subjected to the kind of trauma and abuse I
mentioned earlier on an unprecedented and never repeated scale.
Their formal scriptures, lore, and ethos are imbued with grandiose
fantasies and a towering sense of superiority and "mission". Yet,
the inevitable contempt for their inferiors is tampered by the all-
pervasive pragmatism the Jews had to develop in order to survive.
Narcissists are not pragmatic. They live in a Universe of their own
making. They see no need to get along with others. Jews are not
like that. Their creed is a practical survival guide which obliges
them to accommodate others, to empathize with their needs and
desires, to compromise, to admit errors, to share credit, to
collaborate, and so on.

Israelis, on the other hand, are "unshackled" Jews. They believe
themselves to be the mirror image of the diaspora Jew. They are
physical ("somatic"), strong, productive, independent, in control.
They, in short, are less bound by the need to perilously co-exist
with baleful, predatory, majorities. They can allow themselves a
full, unmitigated, expression of whatever defence mechanisms they
evolved in response to millennia of virulent hatred and murderous
persecutions. Being an Israeli, I gained privileged insight into
this fascinating transformation from tortured slave to vengeful

3. Narcissism and Leadership

Are all politicians narcissists? The answer, surprisingly, is: not
universally. The preponderance of narcissistic traits and
personalities in politics is much less than in show business, for
instance. Moreover, while show business is concerned essentially
(and almost exclusively) with the securing of narcissistic supply -
politics is a much more complex and multi-faceted activity. Rather,
it is a spectrum. At the one end, we find the "actors" - politicians
who regard politics as their venue and their conduit, an extended
theatre with their constituency as an audience. At the other
extreme, we find self-effacing and schizoid (crowd-hating)
technocrats. Most politicians are in the middle: somewhat self-
enamoured, opportunistic and seeking modest doses of narcissistic
supply - but mostly concerned with perks, self-preservation and the
exercise of power.

Most narcissists are opportunistic and ruthless operators. But not
all opportunistic and ruthless operators are narcissists. I am
strongly opposed to remote diagnosis. I think it is a bad habit,
exercised by charlatans and dilettantes (even if their names are
followed by a Psy.D.). Please do not forget that only a qualified
mental health diagnostician can determine whether someone suffers
from NPD and this, following lengthy tests and personal interviews.

IF the politician in question is ALSO a narcissist (=suffers from
NPD), then, yes, he would do ANYTHING and EVERYTHING to remain in
power, or, while, in power, to secure his narcissistic supply. A
common error is to think that "narcissistic supply" consists only of
admiration, adulation and positive feedback. Actually, being feared,
or derided is also narcissistic supply. The main element is
ATTENTION. So, the narcissistic politician cultivates sources of
narcissistic supply (both primary and secondary) and refrains from
nothing while doing so.

Often, politicians are nothing but a loyal reflection of their
milieu, their culture, their society and their times (zeitgeist and

This is the thesis of Daniel Goldhagen in "Hitler's Willing

More about Narcissists in positions of authority:

4. Political and economic circumstances and emerging narcissistic
group behaviours

Pathological narcissism is the result of individual upbringing (see:
"The Narcissist's Mother" and "Narcissists and Schizoids" ) and, in
this sense, it is universal and cuts across time and space. Yet, the
very process of socialization and education is heavily constrained by
the prevailing culture and influenced by it. Thus, culture, mores,
history, myths, ethos, and even government policy (such as the "one
child policy" in China) do create the conditions for pathologies of
the personality.

The ethnopsychologist George Devereux ("Basic Problems of
Ethnopsychiatry", University of Chicago Press, 1980) suggested to
divide the unconscious into the id (the part that was always
instinctual and unconscious) and the "ethnic unconscious" (repressed
material that was once conscious). The latter includes all our
defence mechanisms and most of the superego. Culture dictates what
is to be repressed. Mental illness is either idiosyncratic (cultural
directives are not followed and the individual is unique and
schizophrenic) - or conformist, abiding by the cultural dictates of
what is allowed and disallowed.

Our culture, according to Christopher Lasch teaches us to withdraw
into ourselves when we are confronted with stressful situations. It
is a vicious circle. One of the main stressors of modern society is
alienation and a pervasive sense of isolation. The solution our
culture offers us - to further withdraw - only exacerbates the

Richard Sennett expounded on this theme in "The Fall of Public Man:
On the Social Psychology of Capitalism" (Vintage Books, 1978). One
of the chapters in Devereux's aforementioned tome is
entitled "Schizophrenia:

An Ethnic Psychosis, or Schizophrenia without Tears". To him, the
whole USA is afflicted by what came later to be called a "schizoid

C. Fred Alford (in "Narcissism: Socrates, the Frankfurt School, and
Psychoanalytic Theory", Yale University Press, 1988) enumerates the

"...withdrawal, emotional aloofness, hyporeactivity (emotional
flatness), sex without emotional involvement, segmentation and
partial involvement (lack of interest and commitment to things
outside oneself), fixation on oral-stage issues, regression,
infantilism and depersonalization. These, of course, are many of the
same designations that Lasch employs to describe the culture of
narcissism. Thus, it appears, that it is not misleading to equate
narcissism with schizoid disorder." (page 19).

Consider the Balkan region, for instance:

5. Christopher Lasch, American "culture of narcissism" and the long
term effects of the September 11 atrocities

Lasch and his work are increasingly relevant in post September

This is partly because the likes of bin Laden hurl at America
primitive and coarse versions of Lasch's critique. They accuse
America of being a failed civilization, not merely of meddling
ignorantly and sacriligeously in the affairs of Islam (and the rest
of the world). They fervently believe that America exports this
contagious failure to other cultures and societies (through its
idolatrous mass media and inferior culture industries) and
thus "infects" them with the virus of its own terminal decline. It
is important to understand the left wing roots of this cancerous
rendition of social criticism.

Lasch wrote:

"The new narcissist is haunted not by guilt but by anxiety. He seeks
not to inflict his own certainties on others but to find a meaning in

Liberated from the superstitions of the past, he doubts even the
reality of his own existence. Superficially relaxed and tolerant, he
finds little use for dogmas of racial and ethnic purity but at the
same time forfeits the security of group loyalties and regards
everyone as a rival for the favors conferred by a paternalistic
state. His sexual attitudes are permissive rather than puritanical,
even though his emancipation from ancient taboos brings him no sexual
peace. Fiercely competitive in his demand for approval and acclaim,
he distrusts competition because he associates it unconsciously with
an unbridled urge to destroy. Hence he repudiates the competitive
ideologies that flourished at an earlier stage of capitalist
development and distrusts even their limited expression in sports and
games. He extols cooperation and teamwork while harboring deeply
antisocial impulses. He praises respect for rules and regulations in
the secret belief that they do not apply to himself.
Acquisitive in the sense that his cravings have no limits, he does
not accumulate goods and provisions against the future, in the manner
of the acquisitive individualist of nineteenth-century political
economy, but demands immediate gratification and lives in a state of
restless, perpetually unsatisfied desire."
(Christopher Lasch - The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an
age of Diminishing Expectations, 1979)

There is no single Lasch. This chronicler of culture, did so mainly
by chronicling his inner turmoil, conflicting ideas and ideologies,
emotional upheavals, and intellectual vicissitudes. In this sense,
of (courageous) self-documentation, Mr. Lasch epitomized Narcissism,
was the quintessential Narcissist, the better positioned to criticize
the phenomenon.

"Narcissism" is a relatively well-defined psychological term. I
expound upon it elsewhere ("Malignant self Love - Narcissism Re-
Visited"). The Narcissistic Personality Disorder - the acute form of
pathological Narcissism - is the name given to a group of 9 symptoms
(see: DSM-4).

They include: a grandiose Self (illusions of grandeur coupled with an
inflated, unrealistic sense of the Self), inability to empathize with
the Other, the tendency to exploit and manipulate others,
idealization of other people (in cycles of idealization and
devaluation), rage attacks and so on. Narcissism, therefore, has a
clear clinical definition, etiology and prognosis.

The use that Lasch makes of this word has nothing to do with its
usage in psychopathology. True, Lasch did his best to
sound "medicinal". He spoke of "(national) malaise" and accused the
American society of lack of self-awareness. But choice of words does
not a coherence make.

"The Culture of Narcissism - American Life in an Age of Diminishing
Expectations" was published in the last year of the unhappy
presidency of Jimmy Carter (1979). The latter endorsed the book
publicly (in his famous "national malaise" speech).

The main thesis of the book is that the Americans have created a self-
absorbed (though not self aware), greedy and frivolous society which
depended on consumerism, demographic studies, opinion polls and
Government to know and to define itself. What is the solution?

Lasch proposed a "return to basics": self-reliance, the family,
nature, the community, and the Protestant work ethic. To those who
adhere, he promised an elimination of their feelings of alienation
and despair.

But the clinical term "Narcissism" was abused by Lasch in his books.
It joined other words mistreated by this social preacher. The
respect that this man gained in his lifetime (as a social scientist
and historian of culture) makes one wonder whether he was right in
criticizing the shallowness and lack of intellectual rigor of
American society and of its elites.

There is a detailed analysis here, in a reaction I wrote to Roger
Kimball's "Christopher Lasch vs. the elites"New Criterion", Vol.
13, p.9 (04-01-1995):

6. Are all terrorists and serial killers narcissists?

Terrorists can be phenomenologically described as narcissists in a
constant state of deficient narcissistic supply. The "grandiosity
gap" - the painful and narcissistically injurious gap between their
grandiose fantasies and their dreary and humiliating reality -
becomes emotionally insupportable. They decompensate and act out.
They bring "down to their level" (by destroying it) the object of
their pathological envy, the cause of their seething frustration, the
symbol of their dull achievements, always incommensurate with their
inflated self-image.

They seek omnipotence through murder, control (not least self control)
through violence, prestige, fame and celebrity by defying figures of
authorities, challenging them, and humbling them. Unbeknownst to
them, they seek self punishment. They are at heart suicidal. They
aim to cast themselves as victims by forcing others to punish them.
This is called "projective identification". They attribute evil and
corruption to their enemies and foes. These forms of paranoia are
called projection and splitting. These are all primitive, infantile,
and often persecutory, defense mechanisms.

When coupled with narcissism - the inability to empathize, the
exploitativeness, the sense of entitlement, the rages, the
dehumanization and devaluation of others - this mindset yields
abysmal contempt. The overriding emotion of terrorists and serial
killers, the amalgam and culmination of their tortured psyche - is
deep seated disdain for everything human, the flip side of envy. It
is cognitive dissonance gone amok. On the one hand the terrorist
derides as "false", "meaningless", "dangerous", and "corrupt" common
values, institutions, human intercourse, and society. On the other
hand, he devotes his entire life (and often risks it) to the
elimination and pulverization of these "insignificant" entities. To
justify this apparent contradiction, the terrorists casts himself as
an altruistic saviour of a group of people "endangered" by his foes.
He is always self-appointed and self-proclaimed, rarely elected. The
serial killer rationalizes and intellectualizes his murders
similarly, by purporting to "liberate" or "deliver" his victims from
a fate worse than death.

The global reach, the secrecy, the impotence and growing panic of his
victims, of the public, and of his pursuers, the damage he wreaks -
all serve as external ego functions. The terrorist and serial killer
regulate their sense of self esteem and self worth by feeding
slavishly on the reactions to their heinous deeds. Their cosmic
significance is daily enhanced by newspaper headlines, ever
increasing bounties, admiring imitators, successful acts of
blackmail, the strength and size of their opponents, and the
devastation of human life and property.
Appeasement works only to aggravate their drives and strengthen their
appetites by emboldening them and by raising the threshold of
excitation and "narcissistic supply". Terrorists and killers are
addicted to this drug of being acknowledged and reflected. They
derive their sense of existence, parasitically, from the reactions of
their (often captive)

APPENDIX - Responses in a correspondence following the publication of
this interview

Zionism has always regarded itself as both a (19th century) national
movement AND a (colonial) civilizing force:
See - Herzl's Butlers -

The Holocaust was a massive trauma NOT because of its dimensions -
but because GERMANS, the epitome of Western civilization, have turned
on the Jews, the self-proclaimed missionaries of Western civilization
in the Levant and Arabia. It was the betrayal that mattered.
Rejected by East (as colonial stooges) and West (as agents of racial
alike - the Jews resorted to a series of narcissistic defences
reified by the State of Israel. The long term occupation of
territories (metaphorical or physical) is a classic narcissistic
trait (of "annexation" of the other). The Six Days War was a war of
self defence -
but the swift victory only exacerbated the narcissistic defences.
Mastery over the Palestinians became an important component in the
psychological makeup of the nation (especially the more rightwing and
religious elements) because it constitutes "Narcissistic Supply".

Bin Laden (and by extension Islamic fundamentalism) is the
narcissistic complement of the State of Israel. His narcissistic
defences are fuelled by unrequited humiliation
(Millon's "compensatory narcissism"). The humiliation is the outcome
of a grandiosity gap between reality and grandiose fantasies, between
actual inferiority and a delusional sense of superiority (and cosmic
mission), between his sense of entitlement and his incommensurate
achievements, skills, and accomplishments.

When narcissists are faced with the disintegration of their
narcissistic "infrastructure" (their False Self) - they
decompensate. I have outlined the possible psychodynamic reactions

Narcissism is always concommitant with the "civilizing" components of
colonialism ("White Man's Burden") - though not with the mercantilist

"Pathological narcissism is a well defined (and phenomenological)
mental health theoretical construct. No doubt, narcissists engage in
anti-Other discourse and other virulent and pernicious narratives.
But the existence of such a discourse is not a DETERMINANT of
pathological narcissism - merely its manifestation.

What GIVES RISE to the grandiosity gap IS socio-economic reality.
The gap is between the REAL and the IDEAL, between the ACTUAL and the
(self-)DELUSIONAL and FANTASIZED. Socio-economic factors breed
narcissistic injury and narcissistic rage.



Sam Vaknin is the author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism
Revisited and After the Rain - How the West Lost the East. He is a
columnist for Central Europe Review, United Press International (UPI)
and eBookWeb and the editor of mental health and Central East Europe
categories in The Open Directory, Suite101 and

Until recently, he served as the Economic Advisor to the Government
of Macedonia.

Visit Sam's Web site at

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