The narcissism of small differences

You know when you have held an idea for a long time and then discover there’s actually a term for it, that it’s “a thing”? It’s always exciting when that happens.

I have long been amazed at how otherwise very similar individuals and especially groups of people seem to take offense at tiny differences between them. In the animal rights/vegan movement too, all of us who are in it have so much in common, but sometimes we tend to get lost on the differences.

So anyway, there’s an expression for this, and it stems from – wait for it – Sigmund Freud. In his (quite interesting) Civilization and its Discontents, he called this “the narcissism of small differences“.


The question of course is: why? Why are groups of people that are so very similar, sometimes so hostile to each other because of the relatively minor stuff that they differ in? Why do vegans infight over feeding one’s cats meat, whether someone like me who indiscriminately drinks wine can call himself a vegan, or whether we should improve the lives of pigs by welfare reforms or not? If some of these things don’t seem small to you, I urge you to look at the bigger picture that we agree on: we all want an end to the suffering, use and killing of animals. At least compared to the general population who has no such ambitions at all, this is a huge point that we have in common. Yes, huge.

One possible explanation for the narcissism of small differences – and one that Freud himself offers – is our need for distinct identities. We may somehow, subconscioulsy, become hostile because our identity is threatened by others who are too much like us, so we overemphasize the (often tiny) differences.

Which brings me again to the vegan club vs vegan world topic. Maybe a club that gets too big is a threat to our identity too. Maybe after a while we are not feeling exclusive or special enough anymore, and that might be why we need to make sure entrance to our ingroup doesn’t become too easy. The membership fee, in this sense, has to be high enough. The vegan police is there to guard the door.

All this has to do with the different motivations we have as humans. All of us vegans and activists have a desire to make the world a better place. But most of us also have much more mundane and less lofty tendencies and aspirations. We also want to belong. We want to be with likeminded people. We want to feel at least a tiny bit important. These frailties will not help us in our cause, but they are all too human. It is good to be aware of them. Always.


PS I’m sure there are psychologists, sociologists and evolutioniary biologists who can speak about with much more expertise than I can. I welcome your input, links, studies…

Check this article for further reading, and part of the inspiration for this post



11 thoughts on “The narcissism of small differences

  1. A thought provoking article. I think its very easy to take oneself too seriously. If you have agonised over whether to feed your cat meat and decided in the end to make your cat vegan then part of you says it is the right thing to do. BUT the other half says ‘my cat will get ill without meat, I am being cruel’ and ‘should I have pets anyway.’ When you are not totally convinced you have made the right decision the internal conflict can be all too easily externalised. That takes the form of ‘having a go’ at other people who have made a different decision the aim being to convince yourself that your decision is the right one and they are wrong.
    The answer is to take a more relaxed view on life and perhaps say ‘well I will see if my cat would take to a vegan diet if she doesn’t like it well at least I tried.” We cant change the world overnight we can only make small changes that help. If someone offers you a glass of wine do you say ‘I’m not drinking that it might have been filtered with animal based finings.” or do you relax and drink it keeping your blood pressure normal and retaining your friends. Knowing of course that while you have vegetarian wine at home you cant expect everyone to think the same as you.
    Its all down to individual choice in the end and there are no rules except those that you feel content with. Best wishes, David Pye, UK

    1. ‘When you are not totally convinced you have made the right decision the internal conflict can be all too easily externalised. That takes the form of ‘having a go’ at other people who have made a different decision the aim being to convince yourself that your decision is the right one and they are wrong.’

      So true!

    2. I think this might also help connect vegans with the non-vegan world. It is possible to be an animal lover and still not be vegetarian. I believe in the human treatment of all animals including domesticated ones. Until we can have these conversations without abuse I have to question the underlying motivation for some vegans.

  2. Excellent post, Tobias! And I agree: no matter how much we claim we’re doing it for the animals, there’ll always be a certain amount of human ego just waiting to trip us up – and I speak for myself there, too.

    Where do you think our herd mentality fits in with all of this?

    1. A very thoughtful & interesting subject for this post that I’ve never seen covered before; thanks, Tobias.

      falsealarmboy, I tend to agree with you about the herd mentality. I can’t help but think that while we humans have evolved, much of our brain and psychology is still geared towards back to when we lived in tribal societies.

      Differences among members within the tribe can be seen as threats to the entire tribe’s survival, so this is why I think groups tend to grab onto small differences. It’s almost like there is an unconscious radar keeping an eye out for anything that stands out, and the modern mind can still interpret small differences as bigger or more important than they are. This is the mind’s way of making sure we are paying attention to anything that might threaten the entire tribe’s survival.

      This served us well back then, but it can screw things up for us now. 🙂

      This are just my thoughts as an amateur anthropologist/psychologist, but I’ve found that a lot of human behavior that doesn’t make sense does makes sense when examined in the context of how humans evolved.

  3. Excellent post and spot on. I’ve felt the same way at times (yes, the reason I’m mentioning that I’ve felt the same way is so I feel I get credit for my observation too and actually illustrates your point about identity, although it matters nil on an Internet blog where I’m remaining anonymous). It’s great that you bring psychology into the mix. Hopefully it causes more people to examine themselves and their motivations.

    I think this also relates to another one of your posts on celebrity bashing, which I commented on as well. Some vegans bash celebrities who aren’t full vegan but who still bring attention to the cause. They may bash those celebrities in order to ensure that the principle of veganism is defended, but they may also bash them out of anger and envy that those celebrities are getting attention for a cause that said vegans have dedicated so much time and energy to. It’s like they aren’t given proper recognition for their vegan and animal rights work, and their identity and source of self-worth is stripped away and re-allocated to the celebrities, who’ve done comparatively little for the cause yet still receive so much attention for it.

    1. i give you credit for your observation! 😉

      and i agree re. the celebrities. i think there’s often the kind of ego you describe involved. I think we can make this less damaging and less taboo when we all admit to it and don’t see it as a horrible, but just a human thing to feel…

      1. yes I agree with you both. its even worse when celebrities go vegan for health reasons and get slagged off by ethical vegans. The ethical vegans are right of course but it just harms the cause to attack others for not being ethical. Whatever the celebs reasons it all helps to raise the profile and we should take it on face value and avoid over analysing.

  4. Hmm… not sure what the point of all this is.

    While there is much truth in the human faults and frailties referred to, that is how humans are ( and I freely include myself here)

    Tobias writes – “I urge you to look at the bigger picture that we agree on: we all want an end to the suffering, use and killing of animals.” Yes, that is the shared goal. But the real point of divergence is how to achieve that goal. The goal tells you nothing about how it is to be achieved. Also since it is a goal that is so at odds with all current human societies, it is no wonder that theories vary and some vary markedly. It is naive, and perhaps disingenuous, to propose that since we all agree on the goal, surely we can more-or-less agree what is necessary and proper on the way to the goal.

    Pragmatic vegans are in a conflict with other vegan groups for hegemony. That’s how it is.

      1. Do you mean cats’ meat, wine and pigs welfare reform? They are strategic for those who think moral consistency and high moral constancy are essential – like Frabolitionists. So, the point is not a shared ultimate goal but for pragmatics to demonstrate to the undecided audience that moralism can not work as a strategy.

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