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What Makes the Arrogant Person So Arrogant?

The power motives and narcissism behind the truly arrogant people in your life.

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Arrogance is a trait that society often values and rewards, particularly in arenas such as politics and business. We often think of successful people as those who are able to push themselves out in front of others to win any competition. Whether it’s getting more votes, more customers, or more points on the basketball court, the arrogant show little care or concern for whom they leave behind in the dust. If you’ve got an arrogant coworker, you know how frustrating it can be to be constantly outshined when the boss comes around with bonus checks. If you happen to be in a romantic relationship with an arrogant partner, you can feel similarly frustrated with all the pushiness and need for domination.

In an innovative series of studies, psychologist Adam Fetterman of the Knowledge Media Research Center (Tuebingen, Germany) and colleagues investigated the behavior of people high and low in arrogance in response to stimuli that were high and low in power motivation. Their reasoning was that arrogance reflects an interpersonal quality which combines a desire to overpower others. The opposite of arrogance is affiliation, or the desire to get along with others. Their main research question was "whether tendencies to favor one class of incentives over the other might provide insights into the interpersonal features or personality.”

People high on the arrogance or power dimension of personality should, according to this view, be drawn to dominant-related words or images. They will therefore be primed to process power-themed stimuli more quickly, see them as more important, and try to get closer to them than to stimuli that project weakness or affiliation. Like someone on an extreme diet who’s drawn to any and all food-related cues, those high in arrogance should be on the lookout for anything that will help them get ahead. Similarly, once they’re in situations that trigger their hunger for power, such as a competition, the truly arrogant will work even harder to outdo their opponents.

In the Fetterman et al. research, undergraduate participants first completed a personality questionnaire that assessed their levels of dominance and affiliation. On 6-point rating scales, the students indicated how well a set of trait-like adjectives described them. High arrogance was signified by agreement with terms such as “boastful” and “cocky,” and high affiliation by disagreement with self-descriptions such as “coldhearted” and “unsympathetic.”

For each study, participants both high and low in dominance were compared in their behaviors relevant to stimuli high and low in their communication of power messages. In the first of the series, participants categorized words shown to them on a computer screen as being high in power or high in affiliation. The 10 power words included affluence, authority, dominance, fortune, money, power, prestige, reputation, status, and wealth. The 10 affiliation-related words were affiliation, attachment, belonging, closeness, collaboration, community, cooperation, family, harmony, and relationships. As you read through these lists yourself, think about which you believe you would respond to more quickly. Fetterman and his collaborators found that, as predicted, participants high in dominance were much quicker to judge the power-themed words.

A similar type of readiness to respond showed up in the two subsequent studies comparing those who seek power and those who seek friendship. For the second study, participants gauged the font size of power versus affiliation words presented to them on the screen. Supporting the first study’s findings, there was an effect of personality such that the more arrogant saw the power-related words as quite a bit larger than the affiliation-related words. As the authors noted, “size overestimations have been shown to track reward value” (p. 35), meaning that we give more weight to the words we think are more important.

The task in the third investigation involved having participants use a joystick to move toward or away from combinations of those words (from the two sets of 10 listed above). Supporting the previous findings, the highly power-oriented were quicker in steering toward the power-oriented words, as well as quicker to steer away from the affiliation-themed stimuli.

As the authors concluded, “Cognitive-motivational processes should be particularly attuned to opportunities that can be quickly gained or lost” (p. 38). For the arrogant, this means that their combination of the “dark” traits of narcissism, psychopathy, and aggression leads them to be constantly vigilant for opportunities that allow them to edge out people they perceive as competitors. Because they value winning above all else, they’ll also be likely to enter into arguments; the highly affiliative would be more likely to seek agreement.

In daily life, part of the arrogant picture involves this desire to dominate, but also a kind of overconfidence in one’s abilities actually to win. Yale University’s Kristi Lockhart and colleagues (2017) found that young children (5-to-7-year-olds) displayed a form of arrogance in believing they’d gain more knowledge as adults than adults themselves believed that they had. The arrogant, similarly, are primed not only to win, but to see themselves as deserving of winning.

Perhaps you have a friend who’s applying for a job that is way out of her league. She’s convinced that she will be the winning applicant, even though she lacks the requisite experience and training. During the job interview stage, she impresses her future supervisors with her bold answers. Naturally, she pounces when offered the job. Her arrogance has been initially rewarded, but you wonder what will happen after she’s in the position for a few weeks, and everyone realizes it was a mistake to hire her.

Since the arrogant care more about winning than about friendship, your relationship with people whose personalities prime them to seek victory is likely to be rocky. Rather than letting them get to you or walk all over you, remember that they’ve gotten this way for a reason. Like those children in the Yale study, perhaps they’ll eventually learn to accept themselves as they are, even if it means they won’t always win.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017


Fetterman, A. K., Robinson, M. D., & Ode, S. (2015). Interpersonal arrogance and the incentive salience of power versus affiliation cues. European Journal of Personality, 29(1), 28-41. doi:10.1002/per.1977

Lockhart, K. L., Goddu, M. K., & Keil, F. C. (2017). Overoptimism about future knowledge: Early arrogance?. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12(1), 36-46. doi:10.1080/17439760.2016.1167939

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