Two Dutch scientists tested the hypothesis that spiritual training operates like other self‐enhancement tools and contribute to a contingent self‐worth that depends on one’s spiritual accomplishments.
In three studies, a measure of spiritual superiority showed good internal consistency and discriminant validity. Spiritual superiority was distinctly related to spiritual contingency of self‐worth, illustrating that the self‐enhancement function of spirituality is similar to other contingency domains. It was correlated with self‐esteem and, more strongly, with communal narcissism, corroborating the notion of spiritual narcissism. Spiritual superiority scores were consistently higher among energetically trained participants than mindfulness trainees and were associated with supernatural overconfidence and self‐ascribed spiritual guidance.
Spititual superiority is claimed to be a measure to which degree people feel superior to those “who lack the spiritual wisdom they ascribe to themselves.” The measure’s questionnaires ask people to respond on a scale of 1 to 7 to a series of statements. Example statements include “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.”
Essentially, the studies suggest that the use of spiritual training techniques such as
- energy healing,
- aura reading,
- and meditation
correlate with both narcissism and “spiritual superiority.” By encouraging self-compassion and non-judgmental self-acceptance, spiritual training should presumably make people less concerned with such things. Yet, it seems to have the opposite effect: it enhances the need to feel “more successful, more respected or more loved.”
The authors argue that, “like religiosity, spirituality is a domain that seems like a safe and secure investment for self-worth. 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.”
The causal arrow might work in both directions, the authors argue:
- People use spirituality as a self-esteem booster. It allows them to see themselves as special, and they can achieve progress in the spiritual domain relatively easily, as there are no objectively measurable outcomes.
- Spiritual training attracts 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 concluded as follows: “The phenomenon of spiritual superiority is widely recognized, both by authors who have written about it and by lay people who have felt the condescension of spiritually ‘enlightened’ others. At the same time, it has not yet been empirically studied before. We developed a measure of spiritual superiority, along with scales for self-proclaimed spiritual guidance, supernatural overconfidence, and spiritual contingency of self-worth. We have demonstrated their reliability and we have presented initial findings on correlations with other variables and differences between types of spiritual training, corroborating the validity of our scales. Our results and our theoretical analysis can stimulate further research into this phenomenon. In the applied domain, this could reveal more insights into the effects of spiritual training, and possibly the conditions and personality characteristics that facilitate genuine spiritual growth. More importantly, our results reveal the sovereignty and tenacity of the self-enhancement motive, showing its operation in a context designed to quiet the ego. This can be understood in terms of dual process models, assuming that self-enhancement is an automatic tendency whereas mindful awareness requires thoughtful processes. Our results thus extend the current body of knowledge on self-enhancement, by including a domain in which self-superiority might be least expected.”