Arrogance is one of the seven basic character flaws or negative personality traits. We all have the potential for arrogant tendencies, but if they become an enduring, dominant pattern then one is said to have a “chief feature of arrogance”.
What is arrogance?
Arrogance means “bigging yourself up”—whether publicly or just inside your own mind. Often it involves knocking others down at the same time.
It is generally defined as:
The act or habit of … making undue claims in an overbearing manner;
that species of pride which consists in exorbitant claims of rank, dignity, estimation, or power, or which exalts the worth or importance of the person to an undue degree;
proud contempt of others. 
Other names for arrogance are: egotism, conceit, grandiosity, and self-importance.
Ancient Greek literature refers to hubris, a form of arrogance in which a person thinks himself to be higher in status than other ordinary mortals. In other words, a god.
As with the opposite chief feature of self-deprecation, arrogance is a way of manipulating others’ perceptions of yourself in order to avoid taking a “hit” to your self-esteem. In this case, however, the basic strategy is to get others to see you as special, perfect or flawless — diverting attention from your ordinary imperfections, weaknesses and failings — and thereby keeping your self-esteem artificially inflated.
Components of arrogance
Like all chief features, arrogance involves the following components:
- Early negative experiences
- Misconceptions about the nature of self, life or others
- A constant fear and sense of insecurity
- A maladaptive strategy to protect the self
- A persona to hide all of the above in adulthood
Early Negative Experiences
In the case of arrogance, the early negative experiences typically consist of disapproval or outright criticism from significant others, especially the parents but also siblings and others.
All infants are born with a natural desire for love, care and attention. Ideally, these are readily available and given unconditionally. Generally, though, life is imperfect and young children experience some degree of harshness or deprivation in their upbringing.
An infant believes the world revolves around him. It’s all about me. This is quite normal, and the average child will move beyond that stage by recognizing that they are a part of a family, that there are others in the world, and that it is better to consider what others want rather than be completely self-centered.
In some cases, though, a child can get stuck in needing to put me first. Sometimes, a child’s ability to receive love, care, attention, etc. has to be competed for and is conditional upon her being a certain way and/or not being some other way. Alternatively, she may receive equal measures of love and antagonism, or care and neglect, or attention and abandonment. She will then want to figure out which aspects of herself trigger which reactions.
Perhaps the most typical scenario is one of sibling rivalry, where the children must compete for the parents’ attention, approval and affection. Children in this kind of set-up soon realise that the rewards and punishments given out by their parents are a direct result of how the parents perceive their children—and those perceptions can be manipulated.
The way to compete, then, is to manipulate the parents’ perceptions by highlighting or exaggerating the other kids’ faults while apparently being “the good one”.
All of this, of course, is a very common childhood experience—which is why arrogance is a very common character flaw.
From such experiences of competition, disapproval and conditional love, the child comes to perceive her well-being as dependent upon others’ perceptions:
My well-being in life depends upon how others see me.
As a result of this misconception, the child becomes gripped by an entrenched fear of her vulnerability to negative perceptions—
Being vulnerable to any kind of criticism or disapproval is bad for me.
Any perceived weakness, failing or imperfection in me is contemptible and unacceptable.If I show any of my real weaknesses, failings or imperfections, it could be disastrous.
Hence, showing vulnerability in the eyes of others becomes unacceptable and frightening.
The basic strategy for coping with this fear of vulnerability to others’ perceptions is to manipulate others’ perceptions—to ensure that there is never anything for them to disapprove of or criticise.
I must draw attention only to my winning qualities.
I must never show my real self, which I know to be imperfect and weak and flawed.
I must always appear to be “better” in some way than my rivals.
- drawing attention to and exaggerating one’s own strengths, successes and specialness while diminishing, hiding and denying one’s own weaknesses, failings and ordinariness;
- drawing attention to and exaggerating others’ weaknesses, failings and ordinariness while diminishing, hiding and denying their strengths, successes and specialness.
The most primitive form of this is blatant, shameless boastfulness combined with outright derision of others to their faces. “I’m better than you, so there.” The individual hopes that if she says it often enough the world will just agree and there will be no more competition. This is impossible, of course.
It is unacceptable to be too obviously arrogant and manipulative in most adult settings. Just going around bragging is “against the rules” in most social circles — though a number of rap artists make a good living out of expressing this form of arrogance.
A more subtle form of the arrogance strategy is to point to evidence which, hopefully, will lead others to reach the right conclusion by themselves. Hence the chief feature of arrogance puts on a mask which quietly says to the world, “I’m not being arrogant. I’m not saying I’m better than you. It’s just that…” Arrogance keeps up the same message, typically by telling true stories which indirectly convey yet more evidence of one’s own specialness and wonderfulness. “I’ve had such a hard day! Silly people won’t stop calling me just to say how much they like my new book.”
There is no better lie than a lie based on truth. The mask of arrogance likes to surround itself with “truths” which reinforce the image of invulnerability.
And if the individual should find himself in an actual position of superior status or power, the chief feature goes to town. In his book The Hubris Syndrome: Bush, Blair and the Intoxication of Power the British politician David Owen argues that President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair developed a “Hubristic Syndrome” while in power, particularly in their handling of the Iraq War.
All people are capable of this kind of behaviour. When it dominates the personality, however, one is said to have a chief feature of arrogance.
Positive and Negative Poles
Arrogance, like all character flaws, is inherently negative. Nevertheless, it still has the potential for a positive outcome.
The positive outcome of arrogance is PRIDE, while the more negative outcomes can be referred to as VANITY.
+ pride +
– vanity –
Pride is a state of self-esteem and perceived self-worth which may or may not be exaggerated. Ideally, it is a state in which you recognise your own good qualities in their own right, rather than exaggerating your good qualities to mask or deny your vulnerabilities.
The development of positive self-esteem must focus on lasting and enduring qualities. It must consider uniqueness as opposed to specialness.
Carolyn Warnemuende, Self-esteem or narcissism?
Vanity is a state of excessive, unjustified pride—an irrational belief in one’s own superior abilities or attractiveness in the eyes of others. It is synonymous with egotism and narcissism—it is what happens when you fall for your own lie.
In Biblical terms, vanity was often symbolized by the Whore of Babylon. During the Renaissance, vanity was represented as a naked woman combing her hair in front of a mirror held by a demon or cherub. An alternative symbol of preening vanity is the peacock.
The term vanity originates from the Latin word vanitas meaning emptiness, untruthfulness, futility, foolishness. The phrase Omnia Vanitas (“All is Vanity”) refers to the ultimate futility of our self-centered efforts in this world. This aspect of vanity (as the displacement of spiritual concerns with material concerns) is often symbolized in art by the image of a skull.
… unhealthy self-esteem, as in narcissism, refers to insensitivity to others, with excessive preoccupation with the self and one’s own image and appearance in the eyes of others.
Dr. Lilian Katz (Distinctions between Self-Esteem and Narcissism)
While most people possess some degree of narcissistic traits, extreme levels of narcissism can be dysfunctional and may be classified as narcissistic personality disorder.
See also my blog post: Are narcissists as attractive as they believe?
There is some brilliant material from Michael on arrogance via Karen Murphey. See this two-part transcript:
These really go into the subtleties of how arrogance manifests, and give some exercises for dealing with it.
For an excellent book about all the chief features and how to handle them, including arrogance, see Transforming Your Dragons by José Stevens.