July 22, 2021
A new study has found that some popular forms of spiritual guidance—such as instruction in energy healing; aura reading; and, to a lesser degree, mindfulness and meditation —correlate with both narcissism and “spiritual superiority,” Psych News Daily reports.
An implicit feature of spiritual training is that it encourages self-compassion and nonjudgmental self-acceptance—enabling followers to distance themselves from their egos and, thereby, from the need for social approval or success.
But as the new paper explains, spiritual training may have the opposite effect. In fact, such guidance may enhance followers’ need to feel “more successful, more respected or more loved,” as the authors Roos Vonk and Anouk Visser, respectively, of Radboud University in The Netherlands and the Behavior Change Group, also in the Netherlands, write. Their paper, “An Exploration of Spiritual Superiority: The Paradox of Self‐Enhancement,” has been published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.
The authors developed a new measure that they refer to as “spiritual superiority.” It measures whether people feel superior to those “who lack the spiritual wisdom they ascribe to themselves.”
The researchers’ questionnaires ask respondents to react to a number of statements—among them, “I am more in touch with my senses than most others,” “I am more aware of what is between heaven and earth than most people,” and “The world would be a better place if others too had the insights that I have now.”
The authors also created three scales that they hypothesized would correlate with spiritual superiority.
The first scale, “spiritual guidance,” relates to how much people try to help others acquire the same wisdom they have acquired. It includes statements such as “I help others whenever possible on their path to greater wisdom and insight,” “I gladly help others to acquire my insights too,” and “I am patient with others, because I understand it takes time to gain the insights that I gained in my life and my education.”
The second scale is “supernatural overconfidence,” and it encompasses self-ascribed abilities in the paranormal domain. Example statements include “I can send positive energy to others from a distance,” “I can get in touch with people who are deceased,” and “I can influence the world around me with my thoughts.”
The third scale, “spiritual contingency of self-worth,” measures how much a person derives their self-esteem from their spirituality. Sample statements include “My faith in myself increases when I acquire more spiritual wisdom” and “When I gain new spiritual insights, this increases my self-worth.”
In three separate studies described in their research article, Vonk and Visser established their scale of spiritual superiority as a valid instrument. Moreover, it correlates significantly with the other three scales. It also correlates significantly with narcissism, self‐esteem, and other psychological variables. Finally, it also correlates, to varying degrees, with diverse forms of spiritual training.
They note that spiritual narcissism has been defined, for example, as “the misuse of spiritual practices, energies, or experiences to bolster self-centered ways of being.”
Other studies define spiritual narcissism as a situation “in which the individual believes he or she has become somehow enlightened in a way that others have not, and operates from a disconnecting stance of spiritual superiority.”
Yet another researcher simply calls it “an ‘I’m enlightened and you’re not’ syndrome, Psych News Daily reports.
The authors argue that the lack of objectivity in the spiritual domain plays a role here. “Like religiosity, spirituality is a domain that seems like a safe and secure investment for self-worth,” they write. “One’s spiritual attainments allow lots of room for wishful thinking, thus easily lending themselves to the grip of the self-enhancement motive.”
And because spiritual matters are generally “elusive to external objective standards,” that makes them a “suitable domain for illusory beliefs about one’s superiority.”
On the other hand, spiritual training may attract people who already feel superior. And the “extensive exploration of one’s personal thoughts and feelings” that spiritual training encourages “may be particularly appealing” to narcissists, the authors write.
Research contact: @PsychNewsDaily