The Psychology of Arrogance

5 reasons that arrogant people (regrettably) often succeed

Posted May 12, 2018

Dana Tentis / Pixabay
Source: Dana Tentis / Pixabay

Raise your hand if you like arrogant people?! … Just as I figured - no hands! Hey, I’m with you!

I work with a lot of people and, over the years, I have come to truly believe that there is at least a splash of good in each and every person. And that we all have a ticket on the same ride. I try to be forgiving and I try to respect others as best I can.

This said, if there is one quality in others that gets my goat, it is arrogance. In an article summarizing a provocative set of studies, Johnson, Silverman, Shyamsunder, Swee, Rodopman, Cho, and Bauer (2010, p. 405) define arrogance as “stable belief of superiority and exaggerated self-importance that are manifested with excessive and presumptuous claims.” Sounds about right. We all know one. He or she might belittle you without warning in any context. This person almost definitely talks behind your back. And you go out of your way to avoid having to have interactions with this person as you fear that such interactions may leave you feeling bad for any number of reasons.

The Evolutionary Psychology of Arrogance

As an evolutionist, I tend to look at some psychological attribute in a specific kind of way (see Geher, 2014). Why does this attribute exist in the first place? How does this attribute confer benefits to the person who displays it? What is adaptive about this attribute?

Evolutionary scholars of human behavior have regularly demonstrated that there are multiple paths to success in life (see Figueredo et al., 2008). In humans, there are all kinds of reasons that prosocial, other-oriented psychological strategies exist. People like others who are helpful and trustworthy, and we are more likely to help others who show signs of being possibly helpful in return (see Geher, 2014).

This said, niceness is not the only route to success in the game of life. Selfish strategies, by definition, benefit the self - often at a cost to others. And, as demonstrated by a broad array of researchers on the evolutionary origins of human social behavior, dark strategies that include the exploitation and intimidation of others have the capacity to lead to success - whether we like it or not.

Arrogance, with a focus on over-inflating one’s self worth and belittling others along the way, has all the hallmarks of a dark strategy to social life. Further, Johnson et al. (2010) provide strong evidence that arrogance is a real, measure-able psychological quality - and that it strongly affects the dynamics of one’s work environment.

5 Reasons that Arrogant People Can Succeed

In spite of arrogance being a despicable quality in others, arrogant behaviors have benefits - and, regrettably, arrogance can benefit oneself (see Johnson et al., 2010). Here are five ways that arrogance leads to success:

  1. Arrogant people express anger. Arrogance has been found to be positively related to the expression of anger (Johnson et al. 2010). Arrogant others, thus, might well snap at anyone. Including you. And this can be intimidating. And intimidation is, unfortunately, a dark approach to success.
  2. Arrogant people are difficult. Johnson et al. (2010) found that people who are rated as arrogant by their supervisors and peers tend to score very low on the personality trait of agreeableness. In other words, they are difficult people. And while difficult people are not always exactly popular, difficulty can have its advantages. Think about the last time you got into an argument with a truly difficult person. What a pain, right? Sometimes it’s best to just give in and move on. Arrogant people benefit as a result ...
  3. Arrogant people are dominant. Johnson et al. (2010) also found that arrogant people score high on measures of social dominance. And dominance can have all kinds of benefits. Socially dominant people have a leg up when it comes to obtaining power. And there even conditions in which social dominance is attractive in a mate (see Geher & Kaufman, 2013).
  4. Arrogant people think that they are superior. While arrogance is not exactly the same as narcissism, these traits do share some features. On this point, Johnson et al. (2010) found that arrogant people score higher on measures of feeling superior to others. So arrogant people seem like they think they are superior, and it’s true! And such an inflated sense of self can often lead to various social benefits (see Krueger, 1998).
  5. Arrogant people attack individuals. Finally, Johnson et al. (2010) found that arrogant people are more likely to attack individual people instead of issues. Ever try to argue an issue with someone and then suddenly it gets personal? Icky, right?! Arrogance plays a role in this kind of unpleasant dynamic. And while we find such ad hominem (i.e., “at the person”) attacks to be nasty. We also experience them as intimidating, empowering arrogant people along the way.

Push Back against Arrogance

Arrogant people share many characteristics associated with bullies. They use a dark strategy to advance themselves, often at a cost to others. Across human history, in fact, this has been a problem that humans have faced (see Bingham & Souza, 2009). Coordinating with others and pushing back against bullies has been go-to tool for dealing with this kind of situation across human history.

If there’s an arrogant bully who is making life difficult for you, I say make like our hominid ancestors who formed coalitions against bullies. And use the power of numbers to make sure that those arrogant $%$%&#s don’t win!

Bottom Line

Arrogance is a pretty despicable attribute. In spite of this fact, it continues to persist. The evolutionary perspective can help us understand why. Arrogant others have a suite of attributes that are designed to intimidate and undermine others. If you find yourself running into problems with an arrogant bully, you need to realize that you’re not alone. Understanding the root causes of arrogance - as well as the importance of social coordination in helping to deal with this kind of behavior - can help us fight arrogance when it raises its ugly head.

References

Bingham, P. M., & Souza, J. (2009). Death from a distance and the birth of a humane universe. Lexington, KY: BookSurge Publishing.

Figueredo , A. J. , Brumbach , B. H. , Jones , D. N. , Sefcek , J. A. , Vasquez , G. , & Jacobs , W. J. ( 2008 ). Ecological constraints on mating tactics. In G. Geher & G. Miller (Eds.), Mating intelligence: Sex, relationships, and the mind’s reproductive system (pp. 337–365). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Geher, G. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer.

Geher, G., & Kaufman, S. B. (2013). Mating Intelligence Unleashed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Johnson, R. E., Silverman, S. B., Shyamsunder, A., Swee, H.-Y., *Rodopman, O. B., *Cho, E., & *Bauer, J. (2010). Acting superior but actually inferior?: Correlates and consequences of workplace arrogance. Human Performance, 23, 403-427.

Krueger, J. (1998), "Enhancement Bias in Descriptions of Self and Others", Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 24 (5): 505–516.