Why Some People Think They're Superior

Beware the downfalls of hubris if you want others to like you.

Posted Mar 04, 2017

Source: racorn/Shutterstock

Optimism is generally considered one of the most desirable psychological qualities. We like to be with optimists more than we like to be with pessimists, and we believe that optimism is generally a more successful life strategy. Being a “cockeyed optimist” (in the words of the famous "South Pacific" song) means that you’ll be better able to cope with whatever challenges come your way. To Leuven University’s Vera Hoorens and colleagues (2016), however, being an optimist can come at a price: It may make you look naïve, and you may be in for disappointment when your sunny predictions fail to materialize.

There’s another trap involved with optimism, and it occurs when you fall prey to the hubris hypothesis. As noted by the Belgian team, the hubris hypothesis involves comparing yourself favorably and explicitly with other people. This leads others to believe that you hold disparaging attitudes toward them, because you’re letting them know that you think of yourself as superior. It’s a particular form of pride in which the claims you make about your own worth come at the expense of acknowledging that of other people. The example used by Hoorens et al. contrasts the statement “I am a better friend than others” with “I am a good friend.” When you make the comparative statement with others, you’re showing an explicit form of hubris. When you simply state what a good friend you are, the claim of superiority is implicit, and it's no harm, no foul to everyone who hears you make that claim.

When optimism involves a similar comparative spin, it’s likely to trigger the same reaction as explicit hubris. If you think the odds of something bad happening to you are lower than the odds of something bad happening to others, according to this view, you’re invoking the hubris hypothesis. Why should you be so immune to misfortune? What makes you so much luckier than the people around you? When it comes to something favorable, why should you be so much more likely than your competitors to get a job for which you’ve applied? In terms of absolute optimism, you can think that you’re qualified for the job. If you’re using comparative optimism, though, you believe you’re more qualified than everyone else, and therefore, you should get the job — and of course, they shouldn't. 

In the two experiments conducted by Hoorens and her team, participants rated the warmth and competence of claimants (people making claims about themselves) expressed in either absolute or comparative terms.

In the first experiment, the researchers presented three scenarios depicting individuals who were either optimistic or pessimistic about living to be old, finding romantic happiness, and experiencing happy family relationships. Absolute optimism was represented by having the claimant project optimism for him or herself without comparison to other students; comparative optimists projected having more positive outcomes than would the average other student. Participants then rated the claimants on five traits reflecting warmth (forgiving, helpful, honest, loving, polite) and five reflecting competence (ambitious, cheerful, competent, independent, intellectual). They also rated how much they would want to be around these individuals. In the second experiment, the claimants also indicated whether they would have more favorable outcomes not just compared to the average other student, but compared to the participant him or herself. 

People rated the comparative optimists less warmly than the absolute optimists, and as a result, didn’t want to affiliate with them. The second experiment, with its added feature of having relative optimists believe they were better off than the participants, provided the full test of the hubris hypothesis, because the sunny outcomes expected by the claimants came at the expense of the participants themselves. 

The authors concluded, therefore, that “optimism loses some of its appeal when it is expressed in a comparative than an absolute manner and that it does so because comparative expressions of optimism suggest that the claimant views the observers’ future gloomily” (p. 9).

Ironically, most people do prefer to see themselves as “better” than the average person which, of course, is an impossibility. What happens with the hubris hypothesis is that we don’t like it when someone else openly expresses that viewpoint. It’s fine to think you’re luckier, happier, or more likable than everyone else, but if you happen to voice this assessment, you’ll end up facing the exact opposite outcome.

One reason we don’t like hearing others brag in relative terms about their qualities is that, as the Belgian team notes, we’re always processing information about other people through the somewhat egocentric eyes of our own self-images. If your best friend’s mother is constantly trying to show how much better a cook she is than everyone else, you won’t go over there for dinner, no matter how good the food actually is. Her tendency to self-promote puts your own mother, or perhaps you, in the position of seeming inferior. For her part, she won’t see how much she’s offended you and will be puzzled when you turn down invitations that seem so well-intentioned.

In summary, we know that bragging is the kind of behavior that most of us would rather avoid being exposed to. These studies on comparative optimism show, further, that it’s the hubris expressed at the expense of others that make that bragging so objectionable. Optimism is certainly one well-known path to fulfillment. As long as you can express it without casting aspersions on the possible fates of others, you’ll be able to make full use of its advantages.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017


Hoorens, V., Van Damme, C., Helweg-Larsen, M., & Sedikides, C. (2016). The hubris hypothesis: The downside of comparative optimism displays. Consciousness and Cognition: An International Journal, doi:10.1016/j.concog.2016.07.003