Study: Narcissism and Religion an Unethical Mix

Narcissism and religion: an unethical combination

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Can’t get enough of yourself? Narcissism can certainly be a social turn-off, and a new study from Baylor University shows that its least appealing features may have the strongest effect on those least likely to be so self-focused: the religiously devout.

Researchers at Baylor University surveyed a group of 385 undergraduate students who answered questions about how acceptable they found certain ethically sketchy behaviors, such as an underpaid company executive padding his expense account by $3000 a year, to assess their moral judgment. The students also answered questions about how religious they were, how often they went to church and how important religion was in their lives. Overall, those who were classified as nominal or devout Christians were more likely to show better ethical judgment than skeptics (those who were not very religious).

But when the scientists added in additional information on the students’ narcissistic tendencies, the more devout participants tended to make the least ethical judgments. “Both the nominal and devout groups show degrees of poor ethical judgment equal to that of the skeptics when accompanied by higher degrees of narcissism, a finding that suggests a dramatic transformation for both nominals and the devouts when ethical judgment is clouded by narcissistic tendencies,” study author Chris Pullig, chair of the department of marketing at Baylor said in the statement. “For both of these groups as narcissism increases so does the tendency to demonstrate worse ethical judgment.”

The authors suspect that the effect of narcissism in shaping people’s behaviors and perspectives is pervasive enough that it can alter people and their views in profound ways. “Devout people who are narcissistic and exercise poor ethical judgment would be committing acts that are, according to their own internalized value system, blatantly hypocritical,” study author Dr. Marjorie J. Cooper, professor of marketing at Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business said in the statement. “Narcissism is sufficiently intrusive and powerful that it entices people into behaving in ways inimical to their most deeply-held beliefs.”

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The effect of narcissism appeared to be strongest among those identifying themselves as religious; there was little effect on the skeptics as they showed no changes in ethical judgment regardless of where they stood on the narcissism scale.

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Why are those who hold themselves to higher moral standards more vulnerable to narcissism’s influence? The authors write:

Narcissism is a human personality trait that shows promise in partially explaining individuals’ departure from solid ethical judgment. Narcissists tend to ignore the rules that govern the behavior of others, to attain personal goals at the expense of others, and be insensitive to what society expects of them in terms of conformity to its norms. Therefore, it is reasonable to hypothesize that even though an individual’s religious commitment would logically preclude unethical behavior, a person might be seduced by his or her own narcissism into engaging in acts that are unethical and possibly illegal.

It seems that for narcissists, even those whose religion teaches them otherwise, it’s all about them.

The study was published online in the Journal of Business Ethics.