Dr. Frank Yeomans, a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University, explained in a video last year that people fall under the sway of malignant narcissists due to a human tendency to desire simplicity in the face of a complex world.
Leaders who are malignant narcissists offer a simplified, black and white view of the world, Yeomans said: ‘We’re good, they’re bad.’
“I think there’s a tension all throughout history, and I like to think we’re making progress — lately I’m not so sure — in integrating as opposed to splitting,” he said. “By splitting I mean just seeing the ‘other’ as different and bad.”
Yeomans contrasted the United States under former President Barack Obama versus his successor as an example.
With Obama’s election, “It looked like there was more integration, first time we have an African American president, and it seems like all kinds of minority groups are feeling more part of the whole fabric,” he said.
Yeomans continued, noting that he was simplifying the story in making his point: “Then we get somebody who says, ‘You know, we’ll be great again…if we just keep those Mexicans out. The Mexicans are the badness that is making society bad. We were great once, we’ll be great again if we just keep them out.’”
Such a narrative is “appealing to a very primitive part of human nature, which is reflected in narcissistic pathology,” he explained. “But it’s very scary, because it has an appeal. A lot of people like to, what I call, regress to simplicity. Life is complex. The world is complex. We are complex. The people we interact with are complex. It gets hard to grapple with all that complexity. ‘Hey, let’s go back to a simple model: we’re good, they’re bad.’”
Yeomans said everyone is drawn to simplicity, noting that this is a theme one finds in sports rivalries and most blockbuster films. It is pleasurable to “love your team and hate the other,” he noted, and everyone loves to see a battle between the good guys and bad guys in movies.
“People like a relief from the complexity of the world. It’s fine if it’s entertainment, but if it’s a political stance, then it gets dangerous,” Yeoman cautioned.
What happens when people begin splitting rather than integrating?
“Well it depends a lot on the leader of the group,” Yeomans explained, “because leaders can foster integration or leaders can foster splitting.”
He continued: “A concept we call malignant narcissism is worth mentioning here. It’s a very low level of narcissism, where it’s not only the aggrandizement of the self that is part of the picture, but the pleasure in aggression and destruction.”
Yeoman said it is quite “scary when people get gratification out of being aggressive, sadistic and destructive.”
“But it’s part of life, and we’d better be aware of it,” he noted. “Some people with that core sense of emptiness and hollowness react in a way to bolster and strengthen their sense of self by being mean. That’s satisfying. That’s pleasurable. That fills the void.”
When it comes to politics, “A leader with those characteristics can, like the pied piper, bring a lot of people into their fold by promises,” he said, pointing to Adolf Hitler as an example.
“‘We’re gonna be the Third Reich.’ And these people were led to a path of their own destruction in order to save a false narrative of grandiosity. A lot of people have their own insecurities and find great salvation in these narratives that ultimately lead to destruction.”