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May 22, 2012

Does Self-Love or Self-Hate Lead to Aggression and Violence?

Brad J. Bushman

Traditionally it has been assumed that aggressive people have low self-esteem.  For example, following a series of incidents in which school children fired guns and killed their classmates at various American schools, several organizations (including the United States Department of Education) prepared lists of alleged warning signals to be used to identify children who might be considered relatively likely to engage in such destructive violence, and nearly all the lists included low self-esteem as a significant risk factor1

Try this thought exercise. Think of the most aggressive person you know. How would you describe that person? Does that person have low self-esteem? Is that person shy, modest, full of self-doubt, prone to go along with others, and lacking a well-formed self-concept? Or is that person quite the opposite? Is that person bold, assertive, egotistical, arrogant, entitled, and self-assured? This thought exercise demonstrates aggressive people often have inflated (rather than deflated) self-views. A brief search through history produces similar results. Most of the world's most violent rulers and leaders had inflated egos (e.g., Genghis Khan, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Attila the Hun, Saddam Hussein, Napoleon Bonaparte). Thought exercises and history are informative, but obviously they are not scientific evidence. 

There is no landmark study showing that aggressive people suffer from low self-esteem, nor is there a compelling theoretical reason to believe that aggressive people suffer from low self-esteem. This is not to say that high self-esteem causes aggression. Indeed, most people with high self-esteem are not aggressive. But aggressive individuals typically have the trait of narcissism. The term narcissism comes from the Greek myth about a handsome young man who falls in love with his own reflection in the water. Narcissists think they are superior and special, entitled to preferential treatment, willing to exploit others, and have low empathy with "lesser" human beings2. Violent prisoners have extremely high scores on standardized narcissism tests3.

Research shows that narcissists are more aggressive than others, especially when they suffer a blow to their ego4. Narcissists do not displace aggression against innocent targets; they directly target those who insult or threaten them5.

Research also shows that narcissism levels are increasing over time, whereas empathy levels are decreasing over time. This is bad news for society. Self-absorbed individuals rarely think about others. Because narcissists are so self-focused and care only about achieving their own goals, they often have interpersonal conflict with others. 

Brad J. Bushman is a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University, with a specialization in aggression and violence. 

1M. Lord, The violent kid profile: A controversial new technique for beating violence. U.S. News & World Report, 56-57 (11 October 1999).
2C. C.Morf and F. Rhodewalt, Unraveling the paradoxes of narcissism: A dynamic self-regulatory processing model. Psychological Inquiry 12, 177-196 (2001).
3B. J. Bushman and R. F. Baumeister, Does self-love or self-hate lead to violence? Journal of Research in Personality 36, 543-545 (2002).
4 B. J. Bushman and R. F. Baumeister, Threatened egotism, narcissism, self-esteem, and direct and displaced aggression: Does self-love or self-hate lead to violence? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 75, 219-229 (1998).
6 J. M. Twenge, et al., Egos inflating over time: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. Journal of Personality 76, 875-901 (2008a).
7 S. Konrath, et al. Changes in dispositional empathy in American college students over time: A meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review15, 180-198 (2011).
8 S. Moeller, et al. Creating hostility and conflict: Effects of entitlement and self-image goals. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology45(2), 448-452 (2009).