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Study identifies psychological pathways that explain how narcissism predicts support for Donald Trump

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In a new study published in the Journal of Social Psychology, researchers get one step closer to understanding the psychological processes behind support for former U.S. president Donald Trump. The study found that narcissism was related to increased support for Trump through anti-immigrant attitudes and through ideological beliefs stemming from right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation.

Donald Trump shocked the world when he clinched the presidency in 2016, and again when he amassed even more votes in 2020 despite losing the election. Trump’s considerable popularity despite his lack of experience in politics and his antagonistic nature continues to bewilder social scientists to this day. Researchers wondered whether personality factors might help explain why so many Americans seem ready to place their trust in Trump.

“As a researcher who studies (among other things) the psychological roots of ideology, I’m always interested in political orientation and support for politicians. I was particularly interested in the psychological factors associated with support for Trump, because in many ways, he was and is a political anomaly,” explained study Joshua Hart (@psynoir), a professor of psychology at Union College.

“He broke a lot of the unwritten rules of politics. For example, he speaks and behaves in ways that, historically speaking, would sink most politicians’ chances at attaining high office, and he has defied several of his own party’s norms and ideals. The extent of his support is perplexing, in this context.”

Early studies have provided initial evidence that narcissism — a personality trait characterized by an exaggerated sense of self-importance and an absence of empathy — is associated with support for Trump. Hart and his coauthor Nathaniel Stekler proposed that narcissism paves the way for ideological tendencies that align with Trump’s politics. To explore this, the researchers tested a path model that describes the relationships between narcissism, political conservatism, and support for Trump.

Questionnaires were distributed among 302 residents of the United States who were between the ages of 20 and 72. The surveys included questions assessing narcissism, political affiliation, economic views, social views, and anti-immigrant attitudes. They also measured two personality constructs that align with political conservatism — right-wing authoritarianism (RWA), which describes obedience to authority and hostility toward out-groups, and social dominance orientation (SDO), which describes support for a social hierarchy where certain social groups dominate over others.

First, the data revealed that greater narcissism, greater social conservatism, and stronger anti-immigrant attitudes were all significant predictors of support for Trump. Next, there were indirect effects that shed light on how these personality and ideological variables were linked.

Anti-immigrant attitudes mediated the link between narcissism and support for Trump. In other words, as narcissism increased, so did anti-immigrants attitudes, and in turn, support for Trump. Two additional pathways were evidence for the roles of RWA and SDO. Narcissism was linked to support for Trump through RWA and social conservatism. Narcissism was also tied to support for Trump through SDO, economic conservatism, and anti-immigrant attitudes.

“On average, narcissists are more likely to support Trump, in part because they are more authoritarian and social-dominance oriented (as opposed to egalitarian). Authoritarianism and social-dominance orientation are, in turn, related to social and economic conservatism, respectively. Along with immigration attitudes, social and economic conservatism are strongly related to Trump support,” Hart told PsyPost.

Hart and Stekler say these findings point to a psychological process that begins with narcissistic personality. They propose that the insecurity that characterizes narcissism leads people toward worldviews that accentuate power and control, like right-wing authoritarianism. At the same time, the grandiose aspect of narcissism leads people to adopt ego-enhancing views that degrade outgroups, like social dominance orientation. These ideologies then contribute to socially and economically conservative views that encourage negativity toward immigrants. Anti-immigrant attitudes then lead Trump to be seen as a desirable leader.

The researchers acknowledge that their study was cross-sectional, and their model offers no evidence of causality. Still, they maintain that it is more likely that personality precedes ideology, suggesting that narcissistic tendencies cause ideology and Trump support, rather than the other way around.

“The major caveat, as in all correlational research, is that we are not sure of the causal sequencing among the variables we studied,” Hart explained. “We proposed that narcissism is one root cause — among many — of ideology and political orientation, and ultimately Trump support, but it is possible that the causal arrow runs in reverse or that there are other unknown variables at play.”

“Also, narcissism is a relatively modest contributing factor to Trump support once all other variables are taken into account. It would be interesting to know if our results extend to support for other political figures (or to other political issues), or if they are relatively limited to Trump support.”

The study, “Does Personality “Trump” Ideology? Narcissism Predicts Support for Trump via Ideological Tendencies”, was authored by Joshua Hart and Nathaniel Stekler.