America as a nation is plagued by gun violence. Perhaps most salient among these are school shootings, where the young ages of both victims and perpetrators are shocking and deeply unsettling. What leads young offenders to commit such acts of violence is a question that desperately needs answering, and the role of social exclusion is often evoked due to the unfavorable social circumstances that frequently surround perpetrators.
It is known that social exclusion can elicit aggression, especially when victims of exclusion are particularly sensitive to rejection. Drawing a link between this sensitivity and certain aspects of narcissism, researchers set out to test whether exclusion in a game would predict positive attitudes towards violence in individuals with “toxic” narcissistic traits—those related to exploitativeness and entitlement. Their results, published in the Journal of Social Psychology, help shed light on the relationship between perceived social circumstances and violence.
In the study, 80 participants engaged in a game of Cyberpass (CP), an adaptation of the authors’ own design of the game Cyberball (CB), in which participants are led to believe they are playing a virtual ball-passing game with two other humans, who are in fact computer programs with predetermined gameplay. In the authors’ new edition, a chatbox was added to increase feelings of social exclusion and, incidentally, ended up also increasing belief in the sham game.
Participants were also scored for feelings of happiness, acceptance, exclusion, and attitudes toward violence. Cyberpass was shown to be particularly adept at evoking sensations of social exclusion (based on not receiving ball passes and inability to use the chat due to “technical problems”). Those in the exclusion condition, and especially those who played CP as compared to CB, demonstrated greater feelings of exclusion, thus validating the design.
Importantly, attitudes toward violence, including aspects relating to war, juvenile corporal punishment, capital punishment and intimate violence, were all positively correlated with “toxic” narcissism, but only during the exclusion condition. This means that social exclusion may be a necessary and sufficient condition to motivate otherwise placid toxic narcissists to aggression.
The authors note some limitations, including the generalizability (the sample was all university students) and the use of self-reporting methods, which are never a guarantee of reality. Nonetheless, the study contributes to an important body of literature aimed at understanding how narcissism and exclusion interact to promote aggressive attitudes and, by extension, may underlie aggressive behavior, like the kind that has rocked the United States time and time again.
The study, “The relationship between narcissism and acceptance of violence revealed through a game designed to induce social ostracism”, was authored by Victoria Blinkhorn, Minna Lyons, Elizabeth S. Collier, and Louise Almond.