John Mac Ghlionn

The narcissism of Just Stop Oil

A woman rights a message on a damaged petrol station pump during a protest in London (Credit: Getty images)

Just Stop Oil (JSO) activists have an insatiable appetite for mayhem. Protesters from the environmental group are slowing down traffic in London today, conducting a ‘go slow’ march through Parliament Square. This isn’t the first time, of course, that they’ve caused disruption.

Cast your minds back to July last year, when five members of JSO glued themselves to the Last Supper painting in London’s Royal Academy. A few days before this rather odd demonstration, campaigners entered the National Gallery in central London and proceeded to glue themselves to the frame of John Constable’s the Hay Wain.

Earlier this month, a JSO protester disrupted the World Snooker Championship in Sheffield by jumping onto the table and emptying a bag of orange powder paint over the playing surface. Next up, according to reports, is the King’s coronation.

Some JSO members appear to be hypocrites of the highest order

A peer-reviewed paper, released earlier this month, suggests that some activism is driven by narcissism. The study, conducted by two prominent psychologists at the University of Bern, Switzerland, found narcissism to be a common feature among ‘anti-sexual assault activism’. But might that narcissism also be a motivating factor for other demonstrators, including members of JSO?

When we think of narcissism, we tend to focus on agentic narcissism (those with diminished empathy for others), or grandiose narcissism (someone who displays an excessive sense of self-importance). However, communal narcissists – those who consider themselves the most caring person in his or her social surroundings – differ from more traditional narcissists, in that they use communal events to satisfy their grandiose needs. According to the researchers, manipulative individuals with ulterior motives may view some types of activism as a vehicle for obtaining positive self-presentation (e.g., virtue signalling) and gaining status. They may also view public demonstrations – particularly those against sexual assault – as a way of dominating others and engaging in social conflicts to ‘get their thrills’. In short, some are willing to exploit the adoration (or notoriety) of the movement to fuel their own egotistical desires. The authors aren’t describing JSO members specifically, but you would be forgiven for thinking otherwise. 

One of the psychologists involved in the study, Alexander Bertrams, told me that many forms of modern day activism are attractive to narcissists, as they help satisfy their self-related needs.

‘In this sense,’ he said, ‘we have found a relationship between greater involvement in activism and a higher inclination for virtue signalling.’ This allows an activist to advertise their supposed moral superiority over non-activists.

‘We think that narcissists are involved in activism not for altruistic reasons, but for selfish ones,’ said Bertrams, who was quick to emphasise that activism in itself is not narcissistic. Instead, an increasing number of individuals with narcissistic traits view activism as a powerful channel to act out narcissistically.

On JSO protesters, Bertrams told me that climate activism, which ‘is currently receiving a lot of media attention, elicits strong emotional reactions from the people, and involves a certain amount of aggression’. For this very reason, he noted, ‘it is likely to be very attractive to narcissists.’

According to Bertrams, there are two groups of climate activists: those who take action out of their authentic views and are truly convinced that urgent action is required; and, on the other side, there are the narcissists who appear to be more interested in performative acts of ‘care’. They are fixated on the idea of drawing attention to themselves, rather than actually drawing attention to any specific environmental matter. 

‘If trying to damage artworks in the name of saving the climate leads to increased admiration in one’s peer group and invitations to talk shows,’ said Bertrams, ‘that strikes me as very attractive to narcissists.’ Indeed.

Narcissists derive great pleasure from being able to control and influence the actions of other people. ‘I can imagine that the negative emotions that a roadblock triggers in the affected citizens are emotional feed for a narcissist,’ said Bertrams. ‘Triggering a strong reaction in others through one’s own behaviour is a form of exercising power and control.’

Then, there is the matter of hypocrisy: an infuriating practice that is intimately associated with narcissism. Some JSO members appear to be hypocrites of the highest order. After all, they famously used adhesives made from fossil fuels to glue themselves to paintings and roads. They claim to care about saving humanity, yet have prevented ambulances and fire engines from reaching their destinations.

Bertrams stressed the fact that ‘narcissists place a lot of value in presenting themselves in a positive light,’ but rarely, if ever, live up to their lofty ideals away from the public eye. A virtuous image is important to them, even if this image is built on nothing but a foundation of sand.

Of course, one needn’t be a trailblazing psychologist to see through the JSO charade. Nevertheless, the study sheds some much needed light on the motives of some modern day activists.