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Are People Who Act Superior Really Insecure?

People who act superior may be masking some inadequacy.

I was chatting with a pretty, slender woman at the hair salon last week, when out of nowhere she said, "My boyfriend tells me I should move back to California to act. I've been told that I have a really great look." I realized as she was talking that, indeed, she is quite beautiful. Then I looked in the mirror and realized how bad I looked in contrast.

Then, of course, the psychologist that I am, I had to wonder what caused her to mention her own beauty. Looking at her again, I thought she looked about 40 years old, which must be a tough time for an actress like her who is used to doing commercials as a young woman. I believe that she was feeling insecure and was seeking reassurance from me. But then, what evidence is there that people who act superior are really feeling inferior? She could, after all, just be so genuinely confident that she can't help but mention her beauty to regular people (i.e., non-models) like me.

There is evidence in young children that acting superior is indeed a way of masking deep-seated feelings of inadequacy. A developmental psychopathologist named Kristin Valentino studies young children who have been maltreated or neglected. She and other researchers have discovered a gap between their stated confidence and implicit measures of their actual self-concepts [1]. For instance, maltreated young children overestimate how much other children like them and their own level of competence [2, 3]. At the same time, maltreated young children have negative reactions to images of themselves in the mirror [4]. Moreover, Professor Valentino and her colleagues found that neglected children who were induced to think of their own self-concepts demonstrated the least positive self-concepts during an implicit memory task compared to nonmaltreated children [1]. The implicit memory task is one in which previous experiences facilitate the performance of the task without conscious awareness of these previous experiences. The upshot of this research is that maltreated or neglected children might say that they are great, but these memory and mirror tasks uncover a sense of self that falls far short of greatness.

It's not much of a stretch to think that these insecurities might extend into adulthood. I know that many of you have read a number of articles relating to the idea that people with high esteem genuinely do feel superior. What is nice about this research on children is that it goes beyond asking the participants what they consciously feel about themselves. This research taps the unconscious bad images they have of themselves. So the next time someone acts arrogant and makes you feel dumb or unattractive, ask yourself, "What shortcoming is this person masking?" At least this way you can short-circuit their making you feel bad about yourself.


1. Valentino, K., Cicchetti, D., Rogosch, F.A., & Toth, S.L. (2008). True and false memory and dissociation among maltreated children: The role of self-schema. Development and Psychopathology, 20, 213-232.

2. Black, M., Dubowitz, H., & Harrington, D. (1994). Sexual abuse: Developmental differences in children’s behavior and self perception. Child Abuse & Neglect, 18, 85–95.

3. Vondra, J., Barnett, D., & Cicchetti, D. (1989). Perceived and actual competence among maltreated and comparison school children. Development and Psychopathology, 1, 237–255.

4. Schneider-Rosen, K., & Cicchetti, D. (1991). Early self knowledge and emotional development: Visual self recognition and affective reactions to mirror self-image in maltreated and nonmaltreated toddlers. Developmental Psychology, 27, 481–488.