A surprising quality of good citizens: narcissism

Narcissistic man and woman taking selfie on beach
Image by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay

What image comes to mind when you think of a good citizen? Maybe someone who’s hard-working, generous, and compassionate. A new study now suggests that one of the most striking characteristics of good citizenship turns out to be a trait rarely associated with civic virtue, namely narcissism.

The researchers gave a questionnaire to 371 Canadian voters (average age 49). It included a number of “good citizenship” questions about their willingness to vote in elections, pay taxes, obey the law, play an active role in the community, and stay informed about political developments.

The questionnaire also included two personality assessments. One was a standard 60-item survey (the HEXACO-60) that measures well-known Big 5 personality traits (extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotionality, openness to experience) plus the trait of honesty-humility (which includes sincerity, fairness, and modesty).

Narcissism, the Dark Triad, and citizenship behavior

The second personality test was a 27-item survey that measured participants’ levels of the “dark triad” traits: narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism (which basically means manipulativeness). Researchers usually associate these with aggressiveness, impulsivity, and callousness. Yet recent research also shows positive things associated with Machiavellianism. These include persuasiveness, leadership ability, and crisis management.

The link between personality and political behavior is a relatively new field of inquiry, but has been picking up momentum over the past decade or so. The researchers point out that their study is the first they know of to include the dark triad traits in assessing people’s levels of good citizenship.

Results: citizenship = connectedness and community

Among the HEXACO traits, the researchers found that the traits of honesty-humility, emotionality, extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness are all positively related to good citizenship. This should not come as a surprise: people who score high in honesty-humility have a strong sense of fairness. Likewise, they display greater commitment to the larger community. Those who score high in emotionality feel empathy and attachment to others, and the social connectedness that results from an extroverted lifestyle predicts good citizenship. Likewise, agreeable people tend to be community-oriented and trusting. And conscientious people feel compelled to abide by rules and norms, such as the duties to vote and pay taxes.

Why would a narcissist care about voting?

But the study also found that people who embody the qualities of good citizenship score higher on the narcissism scale. This was not the case with the other two “dark” personality traits of psychopathy and Machiavellianism).

This is a surprising link, as narcissism tends to be associated with selfishness and entitlement. By contrast, “good citizenship” generally means doing things that benefit others, even when doing so is costly.

The researchers are not exactly sure why narcissism turns out to be correlated with good citizenship behaviors. They suspect it has something to do with desiring praise and admiration from others, in this case from fellow citizens. They also propose that social media may play a role. For example, “voting selfies” and hashtags like #ivoted form new ways for narcissistic people to get attention and praise.

“Regardless of the precise motivation” the researchers write, “the findings demonstrate that these darker personality traits, specifically narcissism, are not entirely problematic when it comes to political behavior or our normative expectations regarding good citizenship and civic duty.”

Link to study: Who makes a good citizen? The role of personality
Authors: Scott Pruysers (Department of Political Science, Ryerson University), Julie Blais (Department of Psychology, Carleton University) b, Phillip G. Chen (Department of Political Science, Beloit College).
Published in: Personality and Individual Differences
Publication date: August 1, 2019
Photo: by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay