When it comes to human behavior, things are very often not what they seem.
People who are most competitive are often driven by a fear of losing. People who most hotly debate politics are often less informed about the issues than actual experts are. People who seem to have a superiority complex are often compensating for a sense of inferiority, and people who are less intelligent tend to overestimate their smarts.
Maybe you’ve had a boss or a relative like this. Maybe you recognize this behavior amongst political figureheads. Some of the individuals that draw the most pomp and circumstance also tend to be less competent at their work than they want you to believe.
Why does this happen?
The main reason for this is something called the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is a cognitive bias in which people of lower ability tend to suffer from a sort of illusory superiority. To put it simply, they estimate their cognitive ability to be lower than it really is.
The main reason why this happens is simple: people with lower cognitive function often cannot recognize their own incompetence. They simply lack the ability to self-assess. This leads to a sometimes profound lack of self-awareness.
But of course, simply not being smart enough to recognize the ways in which you aren’t smart doesn’t paint the entire picture, especially when almost comically incompetent tycoons are heading up companies and seem almost sidelined by their illusions of grandeur. How do they reach that point to begin with?
Well, it tends to happen in parts.
First, the more someone learns, the more they recognize their knowledge and abilities are limited. The less educated someone is, the more their worldview tends to be capped. When they simply don’t know what they don’t know, it’s easier for them to assume they are extremely competent.
This lack of knowledge tends to also relate to their sphere of influence. People tend to associate with those on a similar cognitive level as they are, which limits their understanding to begin with. Then, if someone has an inferiority complex, they tend to unconsciously isolate themselves from anyone who threatens their sense of certainty and knowingness. This, in turn, results in the incompetent person surrounding themselves with those they perceive to be less than them in some capacity. Generally speaking, people who are very intelligent tend to prioritize surrounding themselves with people who are smarter than them. Recognizing their own limitations, they want to ensure that they are learning from and being directed by the best there is.
However, if that doesn’t happen, the incompetent person tends to go unchallenged. Long-term, it develops a sort of self-evident bias: they are the smartest person they know, because they are probably the smartest person they’re surrounded by.
But this kind of behavior doesn’t come from nowhere. These people often had a parent or person in their youth who devalued them in some way. Perhaps they were the student in school who never found their “niche.” Perhaps they were bullied or regarded as mentally capped in some way. Whatever the case, this need to affirm their own intelligence comes from a deep fear of their incompetence being the source of their rejection.
This is what ultimately results in the most dangerous part of the story: these people often do succeed at something. They find at least one thing they are skilled in, and their need to feel affirmed drives an insatiable sense of ambition. This becomes dangerous when that success is financial, as they then become leaders of companies — or worse, countries—and the result, is, well, self-explanatory.
So what do you do?
Well, if any of this resonated a bit too strongly and you fear that you may be suffering from the illusion that you are better than everyone in one or many ways, challenge yourself.
If you truly believe you are smarter than everyone else, make a sound investment and see a return. Try to play an instrument, write a novel, run a marathon, or solve a complex math equation. Read a book on a topic of which you know little-to-nothing about. Quickly, you’ll recognize that you are certainly not smarter than everyone, and that’s a good thing.
Sound self-esteem doesn’t come from placing ourselves wholly above or beneath others, cognitively speaking, or in any other way. It comes from recognizing that we all have different strengths and weaknesses, and though we are not good at everything, where we lack efficiency, another person makes up for it.
Some people are smarter than others. Some excel in ways that don’t require mental acuity. But you can pretty much ensure that anyone who thinks they are the Omega of either is, well, likely incorrect.