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Foolish Arrogance

When High Self-Esteem Blinds You to Risk

A neighbor of mine in Colorado, "Bob Smith," was a wealthy man who owned his own airplane. He had a reputation for being a know-it-all who would dismiss any advice, on the ground that he knew better. A benign example of this occurred when Bob hired a photographer at a substantial fee to take a family portrait, and then informed her that she would only get the chance to shoot one picture. The photographer, also a neighbor, told me that she pleaded with Mr. Smith to let her take a few more shots, arguing that it would certainly make for a better result. But Bob stuck to his guns, telling the very accomplished photographer that he doubted the truth of her assertion.

A less benign (to put it mildly) example of Bob Smith's arrogance came when he took his 12-year-old grandson and another adult up in his plane for a late afternoon flight over the Rockies. Coming back into a small airport south of Denver just after dark, Smith was told by the tower operator that he was coming in too low and needed to increase his altitude. He responded in his usual style, by rejecting the controller's warning, and flew his plane into a hill, killing himself and both of his passengers.

The story of how Bob Smith's arrogance led to the demise of himself, his grandson and a friend (who happened to be a psychologist) is one that would be quite familiar to readers of ancient Greek literature. In Athens, "hubris" (excessive self-regard), whether in dealing with Gods or other mortals, was considered a crime, and always characterized by authors as folly, by which they meant an action that would backfire with disastrous consequences. In other words, for the Greeks, as for us today, arrogance is offensive both on moral grounds, because it involves putting down others, but also on empirical grounds, because it blinds one to reality, including dangerous reality.

There are no shortage of examples from the everyday world of arrogance resulting in disaster. Often, this manifests itself when someone in authority refuses to listen to warnings from people below them in a hierarchy when the underlings raise concerns. Medicine is a fertile field for the disastrous workings of hubris, given that folly can prove fatal and given that many physicians are reluctant to show weakness in the face of suggestions from nurses or more junior physicians. The first episode in June 2009 of the TV show "Nurse Jackie" gives a good example of this. A bicycle messenger was brought to the hospital after being hit by a car. Jackie Peyton, a very experienced emergency room nurse, tells a brand-new physician, Dr. Cooper, that she suspects the patient may have a brain bleed. Dr. Cooper lacks the experience to recognize the danger signs, but is too arrogant to admit that a nurse might know more than he does. So he dismisses Jackie's warning and the patient died. A fictional story, but one that plays itself out in hospitals around the world probably on a daily basis.

The military and business are two fields where catastrophic decisions are often made by people in charge who self-assuredly ignore warnings or suggestions from more experienced and knowledgeable underlings. A particularly catastrophic example can be found in the December 1941 Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor. Two Army privates who were experienced radar operators were stationed on the northern tip of Oahu when they saw a very large blip on their radar screen, which they estimated to be around 50 planes. One of them contacted the radar office at Fort Shafter and communicated their concerns to the duty officer, a first lieutenant who was new to his position and who had received virtually no training. The officer, assuming it was a returning squadron of B-17's, did not appreciate the seriousness of the information, and uttered the words immortalized in "Tora! Tora! Tora!" and other films: "don't worry about it." The consequence of the officer's failure to understand the limits of his own ignorance was a likely much greater loss of lives and ships than otherwise might have been the case.

While "hubristic" decisions in war and medicine can kill people, such decisions in the realm of business can kill companies. In a December 30, 2011 story in the New York Times, finance writer Floyd Norris wrote about how hedge fund billionaire Eddie Lambert bought Sears Roebuck on the cheap and, by arrogantly believing he knew more about the retail business than the company's experienced executives, has brought the historic company to the verge of bankruptcy. He bought the company as what is known as a "property play," meaning that if the company were liquidated, he could make money by selling off the valuable real estate that it owned. However, he believed that the company could be profitable, mainly by refusing to emulate competitors, such as Target, who he believed were foolishly spending too much capital on store renovations.

When company executives tried to tell Lambert that the stores badly needed refurbishing, he fired them and replaced them with executives inexperienced in retailing and, thus, less likely to challenge his views. As might have been predicted, the company started losing sales to competitors, because of the increasing shabbiness of its stores. Now, Lambert (whose net worth has taken a huge hit as Sears' stock value has plummeted) is in the process of closing 150 stores, thus putting in motion a test of his property play theory. While the likely eventual demise of such a storied company will be a loss for the communities it serves, it will be an even bigger tragedy for the 300,0000 Sears employees who are in danger of losing their livelihoods because of the hubris of a man who turned out to be far less brilliant than he told himself and others that he was. (This story reminds me of a folk tale told by my late father about a farmer who bragged that he could save a lot of money by feeding his horse half the amount of hay, and then a third the amount of hay and so on, until to his dismay one day the horse keeled over dead from starvation).

In terms of my four-factor explanatory model, "Personality" is clearly the most important, given that arrogance is a personality trait and given that it was the major factor in explaining at least three of the stories: pilot Bob Smith, the fictional Doctor Cooper and investor Edward Lambert. In the Pearl Harbor story, personality was implicated in another way: in the lieutenant's marked lack of curiosity or initiative in asking for more information or following up with superiors. Situation, as usual, played some role as well, especially in the Pearl Harbor story, given that radar was in its infancy, the information conveyed to the lieutenant was not as emphatic or unambiguous as it could have been, and a very poor system of training and action protocols had been established.

Cognition was involved in all of the stories in that they all involved people of above-average intelligence who over-estimated their ability or knowledge to deal with a specific problem. In the process, they failed to appreciate that others possessed knowledge or information that was critical for competent or safe performance in solving a given problem. This points out an important aspect of intelligence, which is that high IQ alone will not ensure competent performance in every situation. Personality is very important in ensuring that someone uses his or her intelligence intelligently.

A very under-appreciated aspect of real-world intelligence, especially important when one's decisions could put oneself or others at risk, is knowing when one does not know enough to make a good decision. Two examples known to me personally, both involving people I considered quite arrogant, illustrate this point. The first story involves a dentist friend who ignored warnings that his small airplane had a maintenance problem and he almost wiped out his family when he had to make an emergency landing (it is not an accident that doctors and dentists, who are adept at solving technical problems but do not have time to become accomplished pilots, have a high incidence of small plane crashes.)

The other story involved an acquaintance, "Larry," who liked to brag that he would live to be 90 because he was a health nut who ran daily. One day he developed a severe pain in his leg which kept getting worse, and he ignored pleas from his wife to get medical help, telling her that he did not believe in going to doctors. On the third day of his increasingly severe leg pain, Larry went out for a run and collapsed and died on the track from a pulmonary embolism. It turns out that the pain was caused by a blood clot in his leg, something that can usually be successfully treated, but which can be (and was) quite dangerous if ignored. In this case, Larry's arrogance, in dismissing the possibility that doctors might know more than he did about the source of his pain, was compounded by another personality trait, namely his compulsive need to run daily in spite of any and all circumstances.

Another way of discussing arrogant rejection of critical information is as a reflection of the dangers of undifferentiated and overly-high self-esteem. In recent years, a backlash has set in against the notion (popular at one time) that very high global self-esteem is always a good thing. Some naive commentators, such as child discipline columnist John Rosemond, have even gone so far as to offer the (horrible) advice that parents should go out of their way to tear down their children's sense of self-worth. In fact, what the research has shown is that people with depression and anxiety disorders tend to have overly low self-esteem while people with violent, criminal or racist tendencies tend to have overly high self-esteem. The important thing is to have a differentiated sense of self-worth, so that one is in touch with reality, including an understanding of the limits of one's actual knowledge and ability. As most children and youth mature, their self-esteem tends to become more differentiated, which means that a healthy global self-esteem score is likely to be somewhere in the middle. Related to this is that true mental health is marked not by very high self-esteem, but rather by very stable self-esteem, meaning that one is able to take failure and even threats as things to learn from rather than as things that must always be defended against. If I can engage in an obvious bit of Freudianism, arrogant people who always need to tell you how smart they are, most likely are covering up for a deep-seated sense of doubt and inferiority. Mentally healthy, not to mention competent, people understand that to flourish and survive in a world of complexity and possible danger requires one to welcome and rely on relevant advice from knowledgeable others.

Copyright Stephen Greenspan