A long self-life: Politicians, egomania and narcissism

Professor Mark Griffiths

Professor Mark Griffiths

In November 2011, David Reinstein published an online article entitled ‘Egomania: An adaptive and necessary illness for politicians’, writes Professor Mark Griffiths.

Egomaniacs are typically characterized as individuals who believe the ‘whole world revolves around them’ and that they are ‘the centre of the universe’. Reinstein also claims in his article that: “most egomaniacs suffer from delusions of personal greatness that cover over deeper feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. Everything is to, from, for and about them”. Egomania also seems to be a close cousin of megalomania (a disorder in which individuals believe they are more powerful, important, or influential than is actually true – and a possible contender for a future blog!).

There are countless definitions of egomania, all of which have considerable overlaps. Reinstein’s article defines it as “an obsessive (driven, constant and uncontrollable) preoccupation with the self”. Other definitions often mention things like ‘an irresistible love of the self’ and ‘an obsessive concern for one’s own needs’ that again are how I would define it myself. Dr Andrew Colman in The Oxford Dictionary of Psychology defines it as “a pathological love for, or preoccupation with, oneself”.

Egomania is not listed in the most recent (fifth) version of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [DSM-5]. However, many people believe that egomania is highly prevalent particularly among celebrities and politicians. However, we appear to tolerate (and arguably even value) egomania if the person is a politician rather than someone we personally know. As Reinstein notes:

“Why would we be so prone to accept this otherwise off-putting quality in the people we elect to represent us? One possible explanation comes immediately to mind. Many people in the general population have reservations about themselves. Perhaps we are drawn to people who seem to be (or at least present themselves as being) more self-assured. People who seem more capable, more assured and assuring, more in control and consistently authoritative may appeal to the electorate as they often do to the movie-going public”.

Again, these assertions appear to have good face validity as we are hardly going to vote for someone who doesn’t come across as confident and cocksure. As a casual observer of American politics, I didn’t give a damn about Bill Clinton’s infidelities. All I would be bothered about if I was an American voter is whether he can do the job (which personally I think he did).

From a more psychological standpoint, Gretchen Reevy’s 2011 Encyclopedia of Emotion notes that egomaniacs may perhaps be suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) as individuals with NPD are incredibly self-centred and appear to match the criteria for being an egomaniac (although NPD is often linked more with megalomania than egomania). Such individuals also have ‘disordered relationships’. Reinstein argued in his article that he couldn’t think of anyone in American politics whether they were running for the presidency or running for Congress that wouldn’t meet the criteria for NPD. As he argues:

“How could someone not afflicted with a substantial dose of Egomania ever consider themselves to be worthy of being elected to such an office? The roles, their responsibilities, trappings and perquisites tend to attract such people. They may not always be the ‘best’ that we have, but their egos are never significantly deficient! Thus, our culture seems to require some egomaniacs. To entertain us and to lead us. It is probably not a coincidence that many entertainers have found their way into major political jobs”

I am presuming here that Reinstein is referring to (among others) Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Clint Eastwood, Jesse Ventura, and Sonny Bono. Here in the UK, we have similar (if not such high profile) examples including Glenda Jackson, Andrew Faulds, and Michael Cashman. The Encyclopedia of Emotions also notes that:

“Narcissistic personality disorder affects less than 1 percent of the population (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). The cause of the disorder is unknown; the two most accepted theories are contradictory. Some theorists (e.g., Wink, 1996) say that narcissism begins with cold, rejecting parents. The child then creates the self-absorption and grandiosity as a defense against feelings of worthlessness. Others (e.g., Sperry, 2003) argue that people who become adult narcissists were spoiled as children and were taught by their parents that they were superior and special. Thus far, treatment of narcissistic personality disorder is of limited success”.

To be diagnosed with NPD an individual must show at least five of the following characteristics. This version was taken from an article by Sarah Myers’ article on ‘manic behaviour’:

• A grandiose sense of self-importance: Egomaniacs exaggerate their achievements and talents, and want other people to recognise them as superior.
• Preoccupation with success and power: Egomaniacs are obsessed with fantasies involving their own brilliance or beauty.
• Arrogance: Egomaniacs’ behaviour is haughty, their attitude conceited and they show rage when frustrated, contradicted, or confronted.
• Need for excessive admiration: Egomaniacs need attention, they want to be adored or, failing that, feared.
• A sense of entitlement: Egomaniacs have unreasonable expectations and believe they deserve favourable treatment.
• Exploitative: Egomaniacs are happy to take advantage of others and use people to get what they want.
• Lack of empathy: Egomaniacs can’t and/or won’t acknowledge other people’s feelings.
• A belief of being unique: Egomaniacs believe that they’re special and can only be understood by and associate with people of high status.
• Feel envy towards others: Egomaniacs believe others feel envious of them.

Myers’ article claims approximately six million people across the world have NPD.

However, it wouldn’t surprise me if there was a higher proportion of politicians with NPD compared to many other occupations.

Professor Mark Griffiths
Chartered Psychologist
School of Social Sciences
Nottingham Trent University

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