Narcissism of minor differences
In his article on "The Taboo of Virginity" (1918a) and on the subject of man's "narcissistic rejection" of woman because of his castration complex, Freud isolated for the first time a particular reaction that he later saw as the driving force behind racism. He wrote "the practice of taboos we have described testifies to the existence of a force which opposes love by rejecting women as strange and hostile. Crawley, in language which differs only slightly from the current terminology of psychoanalysis, declares that each individual is separated from the others by a 'taboo of personal isolation,' and that it is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of strangeness and hostility between them. It would be tempting to pursue this idea and to derive from this 'narcissism of minor differences' the hostility which in every human relation we see fighting successfully against feelings of fellowship and overpowering the commandment that all men should love one another" (p. 199).
He returned to this idea without naming it in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921c) when discussing hostile sentiments with regard to whatever is strange: "In the undisguised antipathies and aversions which people feel towards strangers with whom they have to do we may recognize the expression of self-love—of narcissism. This self-love works for the preservation of the individual, and behaves as though the occurrence of any divergence from his own particular lines of development involved a criticism of them and a demand for their alteration. We do not know why such sensitiveness should have been directed to just these details of differentiation" (p. 102).
Not until Civilization and its Discontents did Freud give the notion the full meaning that it has today: "It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness. I once discussed the phenomenon that it is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and in ridiculing each other—Germans and South Germans, the English and the Scotch, and so on. I gave this phenomenon the name of 'the narcissism of minor differences,' a name which does not do much to explain it. We can now see that it is a convenient and relatively harmless satisfaction of the inclination to aggression, by means of which cohesion between the members of the community is made easier. In this respect the Jewish people, scattered everywhere, have rendered most useful services to the civilizations of the countries that have been their hosts" (1930a , p. 114).
After Freud the notion entered psychoanalytic discourse without much further study. Otto Fenichel described it as a stumbling block in identification with the other that is destined to surpass hostile sentiments (1934). The idea is mentioned in other papers to illustrate incomprehension between adults and adolescents or disagreements between psychoanalysts despite their belonging to the same group. Glen O. Gabbard in On Hate in Love Relationships: The Narcissism of Minor Differences Revisited presented the most thorough study of it. Gabbard stresses the experience of disappointment when, in spite of the aspiration for similarity, we find differences in the loved object, and he links this disappointment to preoedipal and oedipal experiences that punctuate the processes of separation and autonomy.
With the exception of this last work, the notion has been used essentially to explain the hate relations that develop between humans or groups of humans that, by all appearances, have much in common.
- Freud, Sigmund. (1918a). The taboo of virginity. SE, 11: 191-208.
- ——. (1921c). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. SE, 18: 65-143.
- ——. (1930a ). Civilization and its discontents. SE, 21: 57-145.