THE BLOG
05/31/2016 08:56 pm ET Updated Jun 01, 2017

Trump's Narcissism Is a Feature, Not a Bug

Evolution May Explain the Allure of Donald Trump

David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times, is repulsed by Donald Trump. Like many thoughtful Republicans, Brooks sees Trump as a narcissistic, misogynistic demagogue who is utterly unprepared for the presidency and whose nomination will spell doom for the party. He urges his fellow partisans to disown Trump and, like other pundits who failed to see it coming, struggles to make sense of Trump's allure.

Political psychologists seek an answer in Trump's followers. At the University of Massachusetts, Matthew MacWilliams found that authoritarianism is the psychological trait that best predicts devotion to Trump in a national survey of likely Republican voters. A subsequent poll replicated and extended his results. A third study, however, has complicated this picture. Psychologists Eric Oliver (University of Chicago) and Wendy Rahn (University of Minnesota) found that Trump supporters were not distinguished by authoritarianism so much as by populism, defined as anti-elitism, mistrust of experts, and a strong American identity.

Differences in methods may account for the discrepancies among these studies, but rather than try to sort that out here, my goal is merely to illuminate the problem from a new direction. I think Trump is tapping into something deep in his followers, something from our distant evolutionary past. If so, then we must also examine the leader, and the place to start is with his most distinctive and derided trait: narcissism.

More Than Self-Love

Brooks once advised Trump's detractors to emphasize his narcissism as a way to bring him down, and many tried. Yet the brash billionaire went on to crush his rivals. Maybe this is because, to his followers, Trump's narcissism is a feature, not a bug. This could explain their tolerance for his vulgarity, dishonesty, immaturity, unseemly sex life, multiple divorces, ignorance of the Bible, political flip-flopping, and so much else that conservatives normally abhor.

Narcissism is a strange package that includes ambition, grandiosity, insecurity, shallowness of emotion, lack of empathy, temper tantrums, self-aggrandizement, a need for praise, and above all a lust for sacrifice from others as proof of loyalty. Narcissists often end up in positions of power, and two studies strongly suggest that narcissism is a biological adaptation.

The first, a twin study published in 1993 by John Livesley and colleagues at the University of British Columbia, measured the extent to which various personality disorders are the result of heredity. Of the eighteen aspects of personality examined, narcissism was the most heritable, with 64% of the variance in this trait attributable to genetic factors.

The other study, published in 2008 by Bridget Grant and colleagues at the National Institutes of Health, measured the prevalence of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) in a sample of more than thirty-four thousand American adults. It found that 6.2% had NPD at some time in their lives, with a significantly higher rate for men (7.7%) than for women (4.8%). This is about ten times higher than the lifetime prevalence of schizophrenia. Many NPD subjects have the symptoms only during adolescence, but the data suggest that at least half have a more severe condition that lasts a lifetime.

That NPD is both common and largely heritable strongly suggests that it is a product of evolution. But if it contributes to reproductive success, why are we not all narcissists? If it is disadvantageous, why does it persist at all? The answer to these questions lies in a facet of evolutionary theory developed by John Maynard Smith, and it is most easily grasped through example.

Cross-Dressing Cuttlefish

My favorite example is the mating behavior of the male giant cuttlefish that live off the coast of Australia. Relatives of the octopus, cuttlefish can change the texture, pattern and color of their skin almost instantaneously. Normally solitary, they congregate by the thousands during the mating season, and competition among the males is fierce. Disputes over females are decided through intimidating displays and damaging combat. The victor then mates with and jealously guards his female. But this is not the only path to success as a male cuttlefish.

Some sexually mature males are much smaller than the dominant ones, far too small to win a fight. They are, in fact, about the same size as females, and when unguarded females are hard to find, they change their pattern and coloration to disguise themselves as females. Thus cloaked, they can sneak up to a real female without being attacked by the guarding male. When the dominant male is distracted, usually by another large male, the little sneak quickly drops his pretense and mates with the female.

This is called an evolutionarily stable state, because the two different ways of being a successful male cuttlefish -- alpha male or little sneak -- coexist in a stable equilibrium. A population temporarily depleted of alpha males would not remain so for long, because their absence diminishes the need for sneaking and favors the mate-guarding tactic. Larger males would be favored in subsequent generations, and the balance would soon be restored. The restorative force is called frequency-dependent selection, because the fitness value of a trait, like mate-guarding or sneaking, depends on its frequency of occurrence in the population.

Leaders, Followers and Evolutionary Stability

Narcissistic personality disorder appears to be part of an evolutionarily stable state in human social behavior, with its prevalence probably maintained by frequency-dependent selection. This means that NPD is only part of the story. Just as mate-guarding cuttlefish are in equilibrium with female-impersonating sneaks, narcissistic leaders are in equilibrium with an alternative tactic in human social behavior: that of their followers.

More than anything else, it is social cooperation that has made us the most numerous large animals on Earth. Unlike the instinctive sociality of ants, however, ours is implemented through an innate system of socially-oriented emotions and intuitions that serve only as the foundation of the more elaborate social behavior we learn from our group. But as the size and complexity of a social group increase, so does the risk of cheating. Cooperation disintegrates if there are too many free riders, so our basic moral intuitions have been shaped by evolution to discourage such behavior. Most of us feel guilt and shame when we cheat, outrage and disgust at the cheating of others, and virtuous when we make sacrifices to a cause greater than ourselves.

Sacrifice as a Biological Signal

Sacrifice obviates the need to keep track of how much each member of a group contributes or takes because -- if the sacrifice is sufficiently costly and hard to fake -- it demonstrates to all that the person making it is loyal to the group. This costly signaling hypothesis explains why sacrifice is an essential aspect of nearly all religions. If you doubt this, try reading Leviticus -- a grisly instruction book for sacrificing animals to Yahweh.

Sacrifice does more than send a signal of loyalty. It is an investment that profoundly affects behavior. If a person must suffer great pain to join a group, like a brutal fraternity hazing, then defection to another group is unlikely, because that would mean more hazing. Similarly, a person who has sacrificed her life savings to a church will see in it the security her wealth had once meant to her. If the preacher later turns out to be a fraud, prior investment makes that reality too painful to face. Better to deny it, keep making the sacrifices, and preserve the hope, however illusory, that it has all been for a worthy cause.

Narcissists not only understand this, they feel it in the core of their being. They erupt with rage when their demands are ignored or denied. Instead of guilt and shame, they feel joy and satisfaction when they exploit others. Their moral intuitions are different from those of most people. This peculiar genetic recipe for being a social animal is advantageous, but only if it occurs in a small fraction of the population, and only if a large fraction have a complementary recipe that includes a powerful need to belong, fear of ostracism, and willingness to sacrifice for a greater cause. If this idea is right, then these attributes of followers should also be significantly heritable. Twin studies of behaviors that are good proxies for willingness to sacrifice and the need for social belonging -- like religiosity in adults and cell phone use by teens -- confirm this prediction, as do twin studies of authoritarianism and prosocial attitudes.

Human narcissism and altruistic cooperation probably evolved together in our distant past, at a time when we lived in small groups that often competed fiercely with rival tribes. Antagonism toward the out-group is therefore yet another important aspect of this evolutionary dynamic, one in which uniting behind a charismatic leader could be essential to the war effort. This ancient pattern of narcissistic leader and sacrificing followers is so deeply engrained in human nature that it continually reappears, from office politics to Nazi Germany. Its apotheosis is the suicidal cult, like Jim Jones's Peoples Temple.

To the Glory of Trump

The Trump phenomenon, of course, lies far short of that extreme. His followers claim to love him because "He says what people are thinking" or "We need a strong leader." But beneath those sentiments lies a powerful unconscious force that draws them toward the whole charismatic package of narcissistic traits. Trump lacks the cult leader's absolute control over the individual lives of his followers, and he knows that American voters have little appetite for painful sacrifice. Yet for a billionaire who boasts of his wealth during stump speeches, it is impressive that 72% of his campaign funds came from small donations as of October 2015, versus 20% for Clinton. Since then, the amount of Trump's own money going into his campaign has risen sharply, though most of that was booked as a loan. And sacrifice need not be voluntary to bring joy to a narcissist. If recent polls hold up through election day, Trump will have extracted a grievous sacrifice from the Republican Party -- all for his self-aggrandizement. And if he wins the presidency, we will all make that sacrifice.

Portions of this article were excerpted from The Illusion of God's Presence: The Biological Origins of Spiritual Longing by John C. Wathey. Published by Prometheus Books. Copyright 2016 by John C. Wathey. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

John C. Wathey is a computational biologist whose research interests include evolutionary algorithms, protein folding, and the biology of nervous systems. Learn more about his work at watheyresearch.com.