The Shame in Being Superior

Marcel Gregoriadis
5 min readJan 22, 2023
Source: Freepik

Recently, I started thinking of a paradox in my behavior, but really in that of all human beings.

When we enter a room full of people or join a new group, we at least subconsciously analyze our peers to establish ourselves in the social hierarchy. This natural process is vital to calibrate our behavior within the group and give us a strategy that leads to the best personal outcome.

We certainly don’t want to find ourselves at the bottom of the hierarchy, i.e., we don’t want to feel inferior. It makes us self-conscious!

We experience this, for example, when everyone else in the group wears nicer clothes (the feeling of being underdressed), has very good looks, or owns more expensive gear.

This is not a good position to be in, as it consequently reveals a lack of qualities that would make us valuable partners to them. Sometimes this is not even about the portrayed quality itself but the implications it has on one’s social status outside the group or one’s access to resources.

In that case, apart from a minimum of politeness, peers will understand that their limited time and energy are better invested in other peers from whom they can expect to get more value in return.

So we definitely don’t want to feel inferior! In fact, we’d try to cover it up — either by hiding our deficiencies (e.g., wearing loose clothing to hide belly fat), or compensating and showing off (e.g., owning a very expensive car, or talking a lot about our accomplishments).

But do we want to feel superior?

According to this logic, yes. Superiority equates to higher relative value, which equates to more and better opportunities for cooperation.

However, this is not always actually the case! You might recall situations in which you hid your superiority from your peers. Those are moments in which we’re genuinely humble about our positive attributes and achievements. We might even feel embarrassment when someone tries to point them out.

Ironically, we use similar strategies in these situations as we do in situations in which we feel inferior.

While, for example, many poor people try to appear wealthier (higher in status) by wearing jewelry or expensive fashion (see hip-hop culture), people who actually are rich will often choose a more discrete lifestyle and wear clothing that does not put the brand to display, especially when surrounded by poorer people.

Source: Alexander Knyagnitsky at Pexels

The observation that got me thinking about this dynamic is one that I made with my own behavior.

In the first months and even years of working out, I still felt fairly skinny compared to many of my peers. So what I would do was wearing tight shirts that would show off my body definition, and flex my muscles, in order to appear bigger.

When I actually got to the point where the results were significant enough for people to notice and compliment me, something paradoxical happened: I became humble. Occasionally, even ashamed.

I observed myself sometimes starting to get self-conscious, uncomfortable, and, yes, even ashamed of my body.

Even though I felt proud when looking into the mirror, as soon as I was surrounded by peers who were less athletic, I felt like hiding this quality by making myself smaller through body posture and acts of humility. I even started wearing wider clothes.

I wondered about this behavior. Why do I want to deprive myself of the cooperative advantages that I would get from the status gains I should get from appearing superior in any form? Concretely, what is the game theory behind my acts?

What would make me feel uncomfortable in these situations is that the attention was drawn to me. I would find myself self-conscious again. Even if the comments I got were positive, I would perceive them as “You are different.” I did not want to stand out, not even for being superior. I much rather wanted to fit in.

So that got me thinking… Do we want to be superior or do we want to be normal?

The desire to be perceived as normal makes a lot of sense for evolutionary psychological reasons. It is important for humans to be socially accepted. In the age of tribes, the alternative meant death. Standing out, therefore, was a risky position to be in.

But how can it possibly be better than being superior (in whatever socially valued attribute)?

It isn’t exactly. But putting your superiority to display is a dangerous strategy. By doing that, you’re establishing yourself in the dominance hierarchy of the group.

Humans do play dominance games (among others) in some situations, and in some situations they do make sense. This can be, for example, when we walk around a sketchy neighborhood. However, for me joining a new course and trying to make friends, it definitely did not.

The dominance game is never played alone. People under us will feel oppressed and naturally try to ascend the hierarchy. Since it’s also a zero-sum game, this happens at our cost. It is actually extremely difficult to sustain a position of dominance. We can observe this with empires throughout history, but also with the landscape of companies in any industry.

That said, we make ourselves the enemy. As a quote by François de La Rochefoucauld goes…

If we had no faults we should not take so much pleasure in noting those of others.

So if I played out my strengths more than necessary, I would risk not only alienating myself from the group to some extent but also intimidating my peers which provoked a toxic dynamic that would contaminate the cooperation inside the group, and thereby my own net outcome.

In the same way, it is not advisable for the boss in a company to demonstrate wealth or personal success to his or her employees — unless it also matches the level of wealth or personal success of the same.

Finally, is it more advantageous to be superior or to be normal?

It’s definitely to be superior!

However, feeling superior is not!

That is, any appearance of real superiority should always be matched by the same amount of humility. Otherwise, it attracts enviousness and intrudes on other peers’ willingness to cooperate.

Luckily, our psyche evolved in a way that counteracts this feeling once we reach the top of the social hierarchy. Humility is therefore a sign of healthy confidence.

Furthermore, it’s a rational strategy to win at life ;)

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Marcel Gregoriadis

I try to understand the world by writing about it. My essays revolve around psychology, sociology, and philosophy.