Whether it’s through wearing brand-name labels, pouring drinks from the most prized wine bottles, or just putting on the presumed airs of the upper class, people who engage in snobbery can make us doubt our own self-worth.
Snobbishness doesn’t have an exact psychological definition, which is surprising given how common it is to encounter people who display this behavior. However, we can assume it represents at least some degree of entitled narcissism in which people think they’re better than everyone else. Social class and socialization undoubtedly play roles as well: People born into families with qualities that society values, whether it’s education, wealth, or status, may grow up with a sense of privilege because they’re just used to getting special treatment.
Snobbishness may have its origins very early in life, when schoolchildren form friendships and cliques inevitably form around certain groups. There’s a natural tendency to see people from outside our own group (the “outgroup”) as inferior to people within our group (the “ingroup”), even if the divisions between the groups are arbitrary. People on your street may live in houses very similar to those on my street, but because they’re from your street, I see them as inferior. Even though there’s no rational reason, people seem to be very ready to develop a tribe mentality that's hard to shake.
This ingroup-outgroup bias means that the direction of snobbishness isn’t necessarily from the haves to the have-nots. People with lower status, education, and income who show reverse snobbishness sneer at people who have what they don’t. We only have to think back to former Vice President Spiro Agnew’s famous remark about “effete intellectual snobs,” an ironic insult that represents a case of reverse snobbery. The them-vs.-you mentality in this type of behavior helps reinforce barriers that keep people from seeing their similarities rather than their differences.
Snobs find it important to distinguish themselves from other people. For their snobbery to work, though, they need their target to self-identify as inferior: You can’t be a snob in a vacuum. There always has to be another group of people who feel that it’s justified for someone else to define them as inferior. Snobs who feed their desire to feel superior by engaging in conspicuous consumption need to have an admiring audience, or they wouldn’t bother spending so much more than necessary on the stuff of everyday life.
With this background, let’s explore what you can do to fend off snobbish behavior, and the accompanying bad feelings:
Snobbery is a two-way street. Most of what I’ve focused on here is from the point of view of the person at the receiving end. Recognizing you’re the victim of a snob is a much easier process than admitting that you’re the perpetrator. To decide whether in fact you are the snob you wish you weren’t, consider your behavior and answer these questions:
By confronting snobbishness in yourself, by refusing to let yourself be the victim of someone else’s snobbishness, and by avoiding ingroup-outgroup bias, you will be able to take pride not in feeling better than someone else, but in overcoming this all-too-common human frailty.
Success that comes from inside is, after all, the best source of true long-term fulfillment.
Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting. Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
Veiga, J. F., Baldridge, D. C., & Markóczy, L. (2014). Toward greater understanding of the pernicious effects of workplace envy. The International Journal Of Human Resource Management, 25(17), 2364-2381. doi:10.1080/09585192.2013.877057