The term “superiority complex” was coined by Alfred Adler (1870-1937). He decided he wanted to be a doctor as a young child after suffering from health complications, including pneumonia and rickets.
After practicing as a general practitioner for many years he then began working closely with renowned psychologist, Sigmund Freud, and became president of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society in 1910. Although not always in agreement, one theory they did agree on was Freud’s theory of defence mechanisms (Freud, 1894). Defence mechanisms are strategies employed by our subconscious to protect our consciousness from negative and potentially harmful thoughts, such as anxiety (this will become relevant later).
Denial, for instance, is the name of one defence mechanism that is still used in modern day language. It is the theory that if an idea will cause us a lot of harm, we may simply refuse to accept that it is true, thus avoiding the harm it would cause us.
In 1912 Adler and Freud parted ways due to insurmountable differences in their theories. Adler founded the Society for Individual Psychology. He was immensely successful and his ideas were well received. He toured the USA and Europe lecturing and publishing his theories, of which there were a great many. Not least of which were his ideas surrounding inferiority and superiority.
What is a superiority complex?
An individual with a superiority complex gives the impression that they believe they are superior to those around them. However Adler stated that this is often in fact a defence mechanism to cope with feelings of inadequacy and inferiority after failing to achieve one’s goals (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956).
Adler said that all children are born with feelings of inferiority; after all as young children we are smaller, weaker, and less knowledgeable than the adults around us. From a young age we are constantly pushed to achieve as much as we can, do well in everything we attempt, and “strive for perfection” wherever possible. Therefore it can be very painful for us when we do not manage this, causing many negative feelings of inferiority.
So how does this differ from an inferiority complex?
The superiority complex and the inferiority complex are actually very closely intertwined:
“We should not be astonished if in the cases where we see inferiority complex we find a superiority complex more or less hidden. On the other hand, if we inquire into a superiority complex and study its continuity, we can always find a more or less hidden inferiority complex.” Adler (1929).
However despite their underlying feelings of inferiority, these two complexes manifest in distinctly different ways. An individual with an inferiority complex clearly lacks self-esteem and is often overwhelmed by their feelings of inferiority. This causes a general pessimistic attitude towards life.
On the other hand someone with a superiority complex can appear to be immensely confident. They are overcompensating for their feelings of inferiority by finding ways to assert superiority over others, either by trying to make themselves look better, or by making others look worse in comparison.
According to Adler we are all striving for superiority in the sense that we all want to do the best we can in order to reach our “self-ideal”. These are socially acceptable and useful feelings of superiority, even if we are trying to do better than other people. For instance a student who wants to achieve the highest grade in the class is displaying socially acceptable levels of ambition.
However, for those with a superiority complex, the striving for superiority evolves from socially acceptable desires to do well in areas that they care about, into the drive to be superior to others, in all areas, no matter the cost. If they cannot do that on their own merits then they will have to discredit others in order to look better.
A superiority complex is very different to genuine confidence. Confidence is caused by legitimate skills and achievements, whereas a superiority complex is a false confidence to cover up the feelings of inferiority caused by a lack of skills and achievements.
What are the causes?
Everyone wants to succeed and everyone deals with failure at some point in their lives. So why does that only trigger a superiority complex in some cases? Firstly, according to Adler, as we mature we develop our concept of “self-ideal”. This is the person we would most like to become and therefore the type of person we are constantly striving to be.
This essentially means that we all have different values and so what constitutes a terrible failure for one person may not matter at all to another. For example, to one child height and athletic build may be incredibly important and they may wish to be very tall when they are an adult. If this does not happen it can create immense feelings of inferiority.
To compensate for these feelings the adult may then become defensive or aggressive in order to show dominance over taller people; thus it is the beginning of a superiority complex. However, if a short adult never considered height to be an important aspect of their “self-ideal” then being short will not induce any feelings of inferiority.
A second cause relates to the way in which challenging circumstances are viewed. We can either view a challenge as something to be overcome or as something to be avoided at all costs. For most people, feelings of inadequacy or a fear of failure motivate us to work harder and overcome challenges.
However, some people do not strive to do better, often because they see the task as insurmountable. In these cases they try to avoid challenges and yet they cannot bear to think that they have truly failed. Individuals find blame in external factors because it gives them an excuse for their failure and thus means that they could, in fact, have succeeded. Adler used the label “safeguarding behaviours” to describe these behaviours designed to convince other people that any failures are not their fault.
What are the symptoms?
Superiority complex does not appear in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders manual; as such it is not an official mental disorder and an individual is unlikely to receive a diagnosis of “superiority complex” from a doctor. However this does not mean that superiority complexes do not exist. The following behaviours could be indicative of a superiority complex (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956):
- Apparent feelings of superiority. As the name suggests, a common symptom of a superiority complex is apparent feelings of superiority and high self-worth in all areas, often in the face of evidence to the contrary.
- Exaggeration. This is one of the most common symptoms. Individuals with a superiority complex will exaggerate to make themselves appear smarter/funnier/more successful, etc and also in order to gain more attention.
- Aggression and mood swings. If an individual’s behaviour is challenged (for instance, if someone supplies evidence that they are exaggerating) then the individual can become accusatory, hurtful, rude, and even violent.
- Other behaviours include: distain, unwillingness to listen to others, vanity, exaggerated masculinity in front of women (men only), boasting, snobbishness, and lying to put others down or make themselves look better.
Adler also theorised that the long term implementation of safeguarding behaviours can develop into secondary issues. These can be physical, such as headaches or chronic tiredness; they can also be psychological, such as anxiety disorders. These secondary issues then provide further excuses for the individual to explain why they are unable to face any challenges: “I would have achieved at least 90% on that exam if I hadn’t had one of my splitting headaches”.
One of these symptoms in isolation, or even a few, does not necessarily indicate a superiority complex, however. In fact many of these symptoms are similar to other mental disorders such as: various personality disorders, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. Therefore it is up to a clinician to monitor the behaviours and determine the most appropriate underlying cause. If there are underlying feelings of inferiority then a superiority complex is a possibility.
How can it be treated?
As it is not an official disorder there is no standard treatment. However healthcare professionals can still create treatment profiles on an individual basis. These treatments focus firstly on isolating areas which cause feelings of inferiority. Secondly it is important for the individual to stop using any safeguarding strategies. They must stop blaming external factors for their failures.
In addition, it can be useful to examine the individual’s self-ideal. It may be that the self-ideal they are striving for is unhealthy, either because it is unrealistic, or because it puts great value onto something potentially harmful. For example, valuing wealth and power so much that the self-ideal is incredibly wealthy and holds a great amount of power over other people is unhealthy.
Firstly, it is unrealistic and so it is bound to lead to failure and feelings of inferiority. Secondly, it is simply not a goal that is conducive to a happy and healthy lifestyle. If unhealthy self-ideals are addressed it will re-program the individual’s values and also lower the likelihood of inevitable failure and/or unhappy circumstances.
Above all, Adler stated the primary goal of intervention should be to increase a courageous attitude: “Courage is the willingness to engage in a risk-taking behavior regardless of whether the consequences are unknown or possibly adverse. We are capable of courageous behavior provided we are willing to engage in it” (Adler). Even with a realistic self-ideal we will still face challenges. Therefore, individuals need help to develop healthier coping strategies which will enable them to face challenging circumstances head on.
Is this still relevant in the modern day?
Adler’s theories are now almost a century old and the world has certainly changed since then. So are his theories still valid? More recent research by Black, Dubowitz, and Harrington (1994). appears to confirm that they are. They compared the confidence levels of typical school age children with those under evaluation for suspected abuse.
The results showed that among the younger groups of children, those in the suspected abuse condition rated themselves higher in competence and social acceptance compared to the non-abused children. However the reverse was true for the older group of children. This serves as more up to date support for the idea that childhood trauma and insecurities can affect confidence levels in many complex ways.
Additionally, Hall and Raimi (2018) looked at individuals who believed their political opinions were superior to others’. They found that despite these feelings of superiority these people did not actually demonstrate superior knowledge. Furthermore, when given the opportunity to embrace information which challenged their opinions, they often decided not to and instead only paid attention to information which aligned with their views.
Although this research specifically investigates political knowledge, it clearly demonstrates feelings of superiority which are not supported by legitimate achievements and also a refusal to accept any information that challenges the perceived superiority.
These studies can be used as some more up to date evidence of the existence of superiority complexes. Thus, the theory of superiority complexes does not appear to be outdated.
Ansbacher, H. L., & Ansbacher, R. R. (Eds.). (1956). The individual psychology of Alfred Adler. Oxford, England: Basic Books, Inc.
Adler, A. (1929). The Science of Living (Psychology Revivals).
Black, M., Dubowitz, H., & Harrington, D. (1994). Sexual abuse: Developmental differences in children’s behavior and self perception. Child Abuse & Neglect, 18, 85–95.
Freud, S. (1894). The neuro-psychoses of defence. SE, 3: 41-61.
Hall, M., P & Raimi, K. T. (2018). Is belief superiority justified by superior knowledge?, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.