Strikingly, in their personal lives narcissists routinely use classic propaganda techniques — similar to the techniques used by repressive regimes throughout history — to control, confuse and manipulate you and others.
Propagandists use words and ideas in a misleading or biased fashion to persuade others to think, feel or act in certain ways.
As long as there has been propaganda, there have been efforts to see through it. Some 2,500 years ago Socrates developed critical thinking skills to debunk fallacious arguments. Critical thinking skills are widely taught in schools today.
Following are 12 widely-researched propaganda techniques. As you read these you may wish to note any which parallel how the narcissists in your life try to influence or exploit you and others.
One way to do this is to recall a conversation with a narcissist or refer to a letter, email or voicemail from a narcissist, and identify instances of propaganda-like tactics from the list below. Each technique listed has an example of phrases used. If you hear such phrases from a narcissist, these are red flags signaling possible coercion, deception or manipulation.
1) Ad Hominem: From the Latin meaning “towards the man,” an attempt to shift the conversation by getting personal.
If you bring up a topic that threatens a narcissist’s ego, he may resort to name-calling, questioning your intelligence or attacking your character. This technique is designed to distract from the topic at hand and make you feel you have to defend yourself.
Example: When you voice an opinion opposite of what a narcissist believes, the narcissist may say, “You’re delusional. You’re clueless, as usual.”
2) Glittering Generalities: Using glowing words and statements to describe ones self, ideas, or behaviors without providing evidence.
Narcissists are in love with their words just as they are in love with everything about themselves. They think superlatives make them look good.
Example: A narcissistic husband tells his spouse: “I’m the most amazing husband ever. I’m super-thoughtful, smart and always available. I provide a world-class lifestyle for you.”
3) The Big Lie: Spinning a lie so outrageous that others are at a loss where to even begin to refute it.
Narcissists are convinced that whatever they say in the moment is 100 percent true just because they are saying it. Lying often comes naturally. They know that the bigger the lie, the more it may overwhelm others’ critical faculties.
Example: A narcissist when confronted with a credit-card bill evidence of an extra-marital affair: “I’ve never been to that hotel in my life. That hotel is notorious for making up fake check-in records and then blackmailing innocent people like me. There was a big article online about that a while back. You probably saw it. I might even have an email from the hotel trying to blackmail me in my inbox right now. I will fight this slander all the way to the Supreme Court. They will be sorry they ever made up this lie about me.”
4) Intentional Vagueness: Saying something so vague as to be meaningless or open to multiple interpretations.
This can leave others stymied, trying to figure out what was meant. In so doing, the vagueness distracts attention from legitimate concerns or questions.
Example: A narcissist when asked why he did something: “I did what had to be done. I always do what needs to be done. It’s obvious.”
5) Exaggerating: Stretching the truth to extremes to get credit, eliminate doubt, or coerce someone.
Narcissists have grandiose personas. Exaggerating is second nature to them.
Example: Reaction from a narcissist when a friend suggests theirs is a one-sided relationship: “I’m the best and most generous friend you’ve ever had. I’ve done more for you than anybody in history has done for another.”
6) Minimizing: The opposite of exaggeration, minimizing denies or downplays anything that doesn’t fit with a propagandist’s goals.
Narcissists are desperately image conscious so they frequently minimize the negative consequences of their actions. They also discount others’ feelings and needs, which narcissists tend to see as nuisances.
Example: A narcissistic parent’s response to adult child who wants to discuss the parent’s past neglect or abuse: “What are you talking about, you had a great childhood. Yes I was strict but all parents were in those days. You have nothing to complain about.”
Narcissists use false equivalencies to justify their unreasonable views and grandiose needs as well as to avoid responsibility for their destructive behaviors.
Example: Reaction from a narcissistic parent after raiding an adult child’s bank account: “Yes, I emptied your account. But don’t forget, you once stole a dollar from your younger brother when you were six.”
8) Gish Gallop: A rapid-fire series of assertions, questions and accusations launched at another without giving a chance to respond.
Named after the 20th century creationist Duane Gish, this technique attempts to convince or overwhelm others by listing many shorthand arguments, any one of which could be easily refuted, but the collective weight of which seem convincing and would take time and effort to refute.
Narcissists love the feeling of power and dominance that comes from spitting out multiple statements that make others appear foolish or ignorant.
Example: A narcissistic partner when criticized: “How dare you question me? I’ve given you everything you have. Do you think you could have survived without my help? I’ve accomplished more in the last week than you have in a year. Who would you be without me? You think your friends would lift a finger if you really needed it? You’re often so wrong you don’t even realize it. I’m surprised you’ve managed to survive this long.”
9) Lesser of Two Evils: Giving someone only two undesirable options of which one is far more catastrophic.
Narcissists use this to justify or excuse control, abuse, or other excesses.
Example: A narcissistic parent to an adult child: “Yes, you were hit you as a child when you misbehaved. Would you rather have been sexually abused? Count your blessings.”
10) Repetition / Ad Nauseam: Repeating a word or phrase endlessly to sidetrack discussion.
The goal is that if something is said often enough, others may start to believe it. It also is a way of dismissing what another is saying my simply talking over them, repeating a stock phrase or being unresponsive to further discussion.
Example: A narcissistic boss to employee: “I’ve made up my mind. That’s all there is to it. My mind is made up. When I make up my mind, my mind is made up. Period.”
11) Scapegoating: Falsely blaming one individual for a group’s problems.
Scapegoating is one of narcissists’ favorite tactics because it can accomplish many things at once: making others feel inferior; getting other people to go along with the narcissist in ostracizing someone; gaining a feeling of power at orchestrating a group action; hiding or distracting from anything that would make the narcissist look bad; and evading the narcissist’s responsibility for creating part of the problem.
Example: A meddling narcissistic relative: “You’re the reason this entire family is a mess.”
12) Tu Quoque: From the Latin for “You too,” answering a criticism by asserting the other person is guilty as well.
The implication is that a questioner or accuser is hypocritical. The goal is to have a stalemate and put others on the defensive while sidestepping the original complaint.
Example: Response from a narcissist when told he is being selfish: “How dare you accuse me of being selfish. You’re just trying to make yourself look good by making me look bad. It doesn’t get any more selfish than that.”
Bottom line: Propaganda relies on distortions. Narcissistic Personality Disorder, like all personality disorders, is characterized by distortions of normal, healthy thinking and behavior. By spotting how narcissists distort facts, language, feelings and ideas to coerce, diminish and take advantage of others, you can gain a healthy distance that makes it easier to set healthy boundaries against destructive narcissists.
Read additional propaganda tactics used be narcissists here: 14 Thought-Control Tactics Narcissists Use to Confuse and Dominate You
Sources and Resources
Bernays, E.L. (1928). Propaganda. New York: Horace Liveright, Inc.
Lasswell, H.D. (1938). Propaganda technique in the world war. New York: Peter Smith.
Lippmann, W. (1922). Public opinion. New York: The Free Press.