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The perils of a Superiority complex

Paul Russell

Take a look at yourself, you’re smart, hard-working and know how to get the job done. But do you ever get the feeling that others are just, well, below standard? Contributor Paul Russell, director – Luxury Academy London

Whether we choose to admit it out loud or not, many of us experience that little flutter of delight when we think we’re better at something than our colleagues. That’ll be the superiority then. But before you go and hang your head in shame, we want to delve a little deeper into what makes us think we’re superior to others, and whether it’s always as bad as it sounds. Contributor Paul Russell, Director – Luxury Academy London

The reason that superiority tends to have a bad reputation is that it’s one of the factors that make up narcissism, the others being the need to lead, being absorbed in oneself and a sense of entitlement. Narcissists are said to not only rate their intelligence excessively highly and be supremely confident about their ability to do just about everything, but are characterised by their need to affirm their own inflated self-view by devaluing others. CEO’s in particular are said to particularly embody the traits of the narcissist, due to their need to be front and centre of an organisation, making the big wins and receiving the due praise and attention.

Self-confidence and desire for status
Yet, just because you tick the superiority box doesn’t mean you are automatically a narcissist. Academics Raskin and Terry relate superiority to positive traits like self-confidence and social presence as well as the capacity for status. So, if you think you’re pretty great yet don’t suffer from excessive self-absorption, an inflated sense of entitlement and a desire to always be in charge, you may have just about escaped full blown narcissism.

Blind superiority
There is also evidence that you might not even be responsible for your own superior way of thinking. Academic Hornsey reported on the phenomena that when we evaluate ourselves relative to others, a whole heap of self-serving biases come into play. These self-serving biases cover things like unrealistic optimism- the ‘it’ll never happen to me’ mentality- but the greatest of the self-serving biases actually comes in illusory superiority. This is down to our inclination to heap more positive personality traits on ourselves, things like honesty or persistence, than on others. The theory is, that the strain of having to make these (perhaps unfavourable) comparisons to others is what causes the superiority to kick in.

The friend effect
Hornsey also explains that as well as interpersonal bias, we can also attempt to bolster our self-esteem through in-group superiority. So, as we tend to see our friends as an extension of ourselves, we can use our perceived superiority of our friends to make ourselves feel good. In a study with Australian students, Hornsey found that the more Australian students viewed themselves as superior, the more the same students viewed Australians generally as being superior to other nationalities. They also propose that shifting from one level of identity to the other, so from interpersonal to group bias can help an individual to preserve their overall self-esteem, so when your friends aren’t doing anything to make you feel superior, you’re reliant on yourself and vice versa.

Individualism and collectivism
An interesting 2006 article from Xie, Chen and Roy found that cultural orientation expressed through collectivism (putting the needs of the group over the needs of the self) or individualism (putting the needs of the self over the needs of the group) can impact upon self-rating. They found that those with an individualist culture were more likely to show leniency in self-rating. They also found that the greatest leniency in self-rating came from those with personalities that tend to self-perceived superiority. So if you know you tend to being a touch superior, then you’re also likely to be pretty lenient on yourself too.

In a sea of unfavourable personality traits, superiority isn’t the worst. Yes, it’s a close cousin to narcissism but a huge amount of self-confidence doesn’t necessarily steer you into the territory of ruthless, self-absorbed egomaniac. Indeed, superiority is often about worry of appearing less than others, and something that we can be entirely unconscious of. But whilst superiority isn’t the worst personality trait, it’s not the best either. So the next time you compare yourself to others, throw a little more generosity in their direction.

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