Press release about research on spiritual superiority | Radboud University, October 2020

This is a translation of a Dutch press release published by Radboud University

From mindfulness to new age, there are numerous training courses guiding people towards spiritual enlightenment. A less enlightened downside is that some people seem to feel superior to others after spiritual training, feeling that they acquired a kind of wisdom that others lack. That feeling of superiority is often an illusion and illustrates the exact opposite of enlightenment, say Roos Vonk and Anouk Visser in an article about their research into this phenomenon, published this month in European Journal of Social Psychology.
"In theory, through spiritual training we become wise people who rise above their private interests, feel connected with others, do not judge," says Roos Vonk, "but in actuality it often turns out quite differently. People who educate themselves in, for example, healing and reading of auras and chakras, invariably discover that they have remarkable psychic abilities allowing them to "see" things that others do not see. That makes them feel very special."
From research on self-esteem and self-enhancement, the social psychology professor knows that most people have a deeply ingrained need to be better, more likeable, moral, competent or just more special than others. "The idea of ​​spiritual development is that we transcend those desires of our ego. But the effect is often that the acquired insights are hijacked by the ego so that one considers oneself superior to others - in a spiritual sense. That puts the horse behind the cart. "
Various spiritual gurus have written about this pitfall called spiritual narcissism, but it had never been empirically investigated. To do this, Vonk and psychology student Anouk Visser developed a scale to measure one’s subjectively experienced spiritual superiority, by means of statements such as: 'I am more aware of what is between heaven and earth than most people' and 'The world would be a better place if others also had the insights I have now.'
In three studies, the scale was administered in various groups, including students of mindfulness and energetic training schools. As the researchers expected, spiritual superiority was related to (communal) narcissism, and also to the tendency to see oneself as a guide for others (for example, 'I am patient with other people, because I understand that it takes time to gain the insights that I acquired'), and attributing psychic abilities to oneself (for example, ‘I can influence the world around me with my thoughts'). The latter relation was mainly found among students of energetic schools, who in all studies rated higher on spiritual superiority than all other groups.
So, is all this spiritual education just an ego trip then? "The problem resides in the human being, not in the doctrine," says Vonk who, as a scientist, has her reservations about energetic training to begin with (where one learns, for example, to read and heal auras and chakras or regress people to previous lives). But in the studies, mindfulness students showed a much lower degree of spiritual superiority. This may be related to the type of student that is attracted to it, but also to the fact that most mindfulness trainers pay explicit attention to the pitfalls of the ego, so the student learns to be vigilant about them. That is necessary, says Vonk, because "the ego is always on the lookout to reinforce its own individuality, grandeur and specialness. This happens with success in work, sports or relationships, but also with spiritual "success". As soon as you notice progress in your development, the ego jumps out from behind the bushes to hijack the success: look how great I am doing!" And others who say something about it, well, they just don’t really understand it. That way, the alleged spiritual insights become a wall of defense.
The spiritual superiority scale allows further scientific research into the paradoxical phenomenon of spiritual narcissism. It also offers a starting point for spiritual trainers to guard this pitfall, so that their students can truly "wake up" in a spiritual sense.
Publication: https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.2721
also available at https://psyarxiv.com/qh457/

Short article about the research and Roos' own experience with smug enlightees: newsletter Society of Personality and Social Psychology