When expanding on his initial focus on psychotherapy to the nature and dynamics of groups and even entire civilizations, Sigmund Freud (1929/2010) wrote about the tendency of social systems to separate from one another over minor differences. Considering what he called “the narcissism of small differences,” Freud proposed that the more two groups of people tend to share common perspectives and values, the more likely they are to seek out ways in which they differ from one another and to establish a barrier or create a gap between one another because of the difference.
For Freud, the narcissism shows up as a tendency for human beings to believe (or desire) that they are better than other people. Beginning in childhood, we want to believe that we are “special”—and the world revolves around us. This is what psychoanalysts call “primary narcissism.” If our neighbor seems to be a lot like us, then we are particularly threatened. How can we be “special” if we look like, think like and act like other people. Hence, it is critical that we differentiate ourselves in particular from those people with whom we are most closely aligned.
There is another, related factor that Freud brings into the mix. Having just witnessed the horrors of massive conflict in Europe (World War I) and observing the early rise of Nazi ideology and increase in Anti-Semitism in his society (Vienna), Sigmund Freud began to postulate a death wish (Thanatos) and accompanying aggressive drive. This wish and drive complement the sexual drive (libido) that Freud believed motivates all human behavior. For Freud, the aggressive drive is most likely to be elicited in our relationship with those who are closest to us—especially if they challenge our personal narcissistic sense of being “special.” We hate those whom we resemble. Some psychoanalytically oriented theorists would even suggest that we project our “self-hatred” (formed by negative interactions with our primary caregiver) onto other people. And who better to receive this projection than people who resemble us in some important ways.
Thus, we seek to differentiate ourselves from people who resemble us in important ways. We look for minor differences in our view of the world to justify this differentiation. Evidence of this “narcissism of small differences” is abundant in the multiple differentiation of cultures through the history of European civilization—we need only witness the splintering of the Protestant Church into many sects. Ironically, we see this same splintering of Freud’s psychoanalytic school into multiple factions, competing training programs, and conflicting ideologies. All becomes of minor differences in fundamental psychoanalytic theory and practice.