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The Link Between Psychopathy, Narcissism, and Racism

Pro-Trump protesters gather outside the Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021.

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Key Takeaways

  • A recent study has drawn a link between racism and certain personality disorders, such as psychopathy and narcissism.
  • In many cases, a lack of empathy can lead to harmful beliefs about others.

Racism has often been described as a condition that stems from ignorance, but researchers have found that people with certain personality disorders are more likely to espouse racist attitudes.

A recent study published in the Personality and Individual Differences journal found a link between racism and psychopathy, a psychiatric disorder characterized by a lack of empathy, superficial charm, pathological lying, a grandiose sense of self-worth, manipulation, and other traits.

The definition of racism may vary depending on the context in which it is used, but, typically, racism describes the belief that certain groups of people are fundamentally different from or superior to other groups based on their race.

Racism also refers to the structural oppression that empowers or privileges White people while disadvantaging or subjugating Black, Indigenous and other people of color (BIPOC). 

How Racism and Psychopathy Intersect

Study author Sandeep Roy, a University of North Texas clinical psychology doctoral candidate, became interested in exploring a possible correlation between psychopathy and racism after working with offenders in Arizona correctional facilities. He noticed that the inmates who exhibited more psychopathic traits were more likely to direct racial slurs at him and other prison staffers of color.

Psychopathic traits such as a lack of empathy and callousness are predictive of prejudicial tendencies.

Co-authored by Craig S. Neumann, Daniel N. Jones, Aikaterini Gari, and Zlatko Šram, Roy’s study examined the support 386 Croatian and 378 Greek college students had for social hierarchies and authoritarianism. It also measured how much psychopathy and prejudice they harbored.

The findings suggest that there is a relationship between psychopathic traits such as callousness and deception and a proclivity for authoritarianism, xenophobia, and prejudice. Individuals with these psychopathic traits may not only support the subjugation of marginalized groups, but also have attitudes that predict a willingness to employ force against individuals who buck social norms rooted in oppression.

“Psychopathic traits were still predictive of prejudice towards Middle-Eastern immigrants and distrust of minorities after taking these prejudicial social attitudes into account, indicating pathological personality traits, such as those captured by psychopathy, are predictive of increased tendencies to devalue marginalized groups,” Roy said.

He went on to point out that since his study focused on college-aged students, more research likely needs to be done on the subject to measure how often psychopathic traits line up with racist attitudes and behaviors. Among populations with higher rates of psychopathy, such as the criminal offender population, the relationship between the personality trait and racism could appear to be more substantial or otherwise different.

Roy also said that the research relied heavily on self-reported assessments; clinical assessments might have yielded slightly different results.

The Role of Machiavellianism and Narcissism

Roy said that his research stands out because, while numerous studies have investigated the toll of racism on minority groups, few have examined the personality traits that make individuals more inclined to hold racist views.

A 2017 Austrian study, however, found that those with the four dark tetrad personality traits—psychopathy, narcissism, sadism, and Machiavellianism—were more likely to vote for a xenophobic presidential candidate with right-wing views.

The researchers studied 675 Austrian citizens (264 females, 411 males) with a mean age of 35.9. The study found a positive association between the dark tetrad and a political right-wing attitude, with Machiavellianism emerging as the most important predictor that one would have such views.

Study authors Boris Duspara and Tobias Greitemeyer explained the personality trait and how it lines up with psychopathy and narcissism when it comes to a person’s political orientation.

“Machiavellianism is associated with misanthropy, anti-social tendencies, cold-heartedness, and immoral beliefs...In contrast, only narcissism and psychopathy were associated with political extremism," they say. "A possible explanation for the association between narcissism and political extremism is due to the narcissistic tendency of focusing on one’s own interests whereas the needs of others are neglected.”

Scholars have also conducted research about the link between racism and narcissism specifically. In 1980, Chicago psychiatrist Dr. Carl Bell published a paper called “Racism: A Symptom of the Narcissistic Personality Disorder.” Symptoms of the disorder, abbreviated as NPD, include a grandiose sense of self, callousness, an excessive need for admiration, and an inability to take criticism.

Bell, who died in 2019, acknowledged that various factors lead people to develop racist attitudes but argued that there was cause to examine racism through the lens of narcissistic personality development. Particularly, the narcissist’s lack of empathy and extreme rage make racism “one psychic derivative through which narcissism may manifest itself.”

Surprisingly, Bell, who was Black, also noted that African Americans were at risk of developing narcissism as a result of experiencing racial discrimination. He explained, “Blacks, because of their vulnerable position, can develop either a grandiosity or destructive narcissistic rage secondary to a total lack of empathy from a racist society, or they can psychologically survive by development of their empathy, wisdom, and creativity.”

How Research and Treatment Might Help

The research conducted on racism and “dark,” or malevolent, personality characteristics could be used to benefit Black people, white people, and society generally.

Roy hopes his study and others “provide a foundation of empirical research to help inform risk assessment and treatment of those with personality profiles predisposed to devaluing marginalized groups.”

Unfortunately, personality disorders and dark personality traits often go undiagnosed—so individuals with these characteristics traits may be less able to recognize a problem, and less willing to seek help.

Many times, they hesitate to get treatment because they view others, and not themselves, as responsible for their troubles. This is another line of thinking that makes them likely to scapegoat minority groups for society’s problems.

But those with insight can get help for their personality disorder and make the effort to examine and challenge their racist views.

What This Means For You

Although personality disorders are difficult to treat, with appropriate psychiatric intervention, it might be possible to develop the skills needed to change this way of thinking and adopt more beneficial personality traits. But this is a process that could require years of therapy.

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Article Sources
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  1. Roy Sandeep. Psychopathic propensities contribute to social dominance orientation and right-wing authoritarianism in predicting prejudicial attitudes in a large European sample. Personality and Individual Differences. 2021 Jan 1, doi:10.1016/j.paid.2020.110355.

  2. Duspara B and Greitemeyer T. The impact of dark tetrad traits on political orientation and extremism: an analysis in the course of a presidential election. Heliyon; 2017. doi:10.1016/j.heliyon.2017.e00425

  3. Bell CB. Racism: a symptom of the narcissistic personality. Journal of the National Medical Association. 1980 July.