Study of the Day: Narcissism Mixed With Religion Breeds Hypocrisy

New research shows that, though religious skeptics exhibit the worst ethical judgment, narcissistic believers aren't far behind.

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PROBLEM: Even though many religions come with a set of moral guidelines, some people who evince high levels of faith commit acts of egregiously bad behavior, such as exploiting the underprivileged or engaging in illicit sexual behavior.

METHODOLOGY: To see how narcissism moderates the effect of religiosity on moral conduct, Baylor University researchers Marjorie J. Cooper and Chris Pullig asked 385 undergraduate marketing students to complete an online survey that tested their ethical judgment and narcissistic tendencies. The subjects indicated to what degree they believe behavior was acceptable or not for such statements as "An underpaid executive padded his expense account by about $3,000 a year," "I go to church mostly to spend time with my friends," and "Although I believe in my religion, many other things are more important in life."

RESULTS: Overall, the skeptics showed the worst ethical judgment. Interestingly, the data also suggested that self-centeredness only influences the behavior of religious believers, as levels of narcissism rose alongside the likelihood of demonstrating poor ethical judgment of both nominal and devout Christians.

CONCLUSION: Narcissism makes it difficult for the religious to be virtuous.

IMPLICATION: High levels of egotism may be especially harmful to the faithful who are expected to uphold their beliefs. Cooper said in a statement, "Devout people who are narcissistic and exercise poor ethical judgment would be committing acts that are, according to their own internalized value system, blatantly hypocritical."

SOURCE: The full study, "I'm Number One! Does Narcissism Impair Ethical Judgment Even for the Highly Religious?" (PDF) is published in the Journal of Business Ethics.

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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