The Self-righteous psychology

We all know that person: the Mr.Always-right co-worker, who always thinks he’s got it down and everyone else is wrong. The self-victimizing acquaintance who thinks she treats everyone generously and kindly but who everyone else treats like dirt. The friend you grew up with who thinks he’s reflective and everyone else needs to learn that skill.

At some point in our lives, we will come across the self-righteous person. With their criticism, indignation, and conceit, they tend to grate on our nerves and throw us off our track—if we let them.

But what is the psychology behind the self-righteous personality, and how does it affect you when you have to deal with that BS?

A number of variables grow the self-righteous mind, but a few characteristics are shared by those who think they’re oh-so-good-and-right:

  1. Overgeneralizations: Take a negative incident, throw some magic growth-powder on it, and you have an exaggeration. Look out for “always”, “never”, and “all” from these people, and you could have some self-righteousness burbling in the cauldron.
  2. Positive-discounting: On the flip side of overgeneralizations is taking the stance that positive things, like characteristics of others, aren’t as important. “Hey, you’re nice, but who cares. Being nice is overrated, anyway.”
  3. Jumping to conclusions: We all do it, but the self-righteous person is skilled in this. Conclusions are arrived at, though there is very little to no non-bias to the conclusion. “So-and-so didn’t give me money as a Christmas present this year; they don’t care about me and are cheap. Ugh, I hate cheap people.”
  4. Black-and-white thinking: Either you’re perfect, or you’re not. If you fall short of expectations, it’s because you’re not [insert some quality here], and that’s a reflection of your entirety.

Of course, the self-righteous person doesn’t always have to share these qualities, and their behavior may not draw from these thinking patterns. I know some people who seem self-righteous, and perhaps they are, but it’s due more to social environment than anything else. That’s not to say they haven’t adopted the self-righteous attitude, but I don’t think they would’ve turned out that way had it not been for certain social attitudes around them.

But what makes the self-righteous attitude such a pervasive form of thinking for those who engage in it?

There are a number of reasons based on basic human psychology.

The backfire effect is a relatively common human tendency to protect whatever is added to your collection of beliefs. That is, whatever you decide to believe, you tend to dismiss what doesn’t match up to that perspective, and suck in the “evidence” that matches up to it. So you end up glued to your beliefs and never questioning them, even when new information comes your way that shakes up the foundations of those beliefs—or rather, could shake those foundations if only the backfire effect didn’t get in the way.

The backfire effect is mostly due to cognitive laziness—our brains don’t want to work, so we sink into those explanations that don’t take too much energy to process. The more strenuous it becomes to process things, the less credibility you think they have.

Think you don’t have this tendency yourself, though? Think again.

The next time you have someone praise you, then another person criticize you, explore how you feel. Chances are, a thousand “You’re so smart”, but one “You’re not smart enough” will affect you differently. You’ll let the praise slip right through your mind, but you’ll leech on to the negative comment.


The backfire effect and another tendency have something to do with it. People tend to spend more time considering information they disagree with than information they accept. Anything that line sup with your way of thinking passes through your processing simply, but anything that threatens your beliefs will grab on to your awareness and hold on. With the backfire effect in play as well, you’ll end up not believing the harder pill to swallow, because it ends up taking too much energy to process. Even if you dwell on the criticism, you’ll fight against believing it and try to find all the ways that that criticism is wrong about you.

Why is this so? Evolution may be at play, here.

Our human ancestors paid more attention to negative stimuli than positive, because if the negative wasn’t addressed, that could mean death.

Biased assimilation has something to do with all this, as well. Kevin Dunbar ran an fMRI experiment where he showed subjects information that confirmed their beliefs about something. Brain regions relating to learning lit up.

But when given contradictory information, those learning brain regions didn’t light up. Rather, brain regions relating to suppression lit up.

In other words, presenting information doesn’t necessarily change the way people think or what they believe. We’re all susceptible to cognitive biases—some of us more so than others.





Manic Monday: Eye of the Storm

A classic experiment on discrimination was Jane Elliott’s Blue eyes/Brown eyes experiment. Jane Elliott is a former third-grade teacher, with no research background to speak for. However, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, she decided to try a little experiment with her young, impressionable students.

What she did next was nothing short of fascinating.

On April 4, 1968, Jane Elliott was ironing a teepee for one of her classroom activities. On the television, she was watching news about the assassination of King. One white reporter mentioned something that shocked Elliott:

“When our leader [John F. Kennedy] was killed several years ago, his widow held us together. Who’s going to control your people?”

Elliott could not believe that the white reporter felt that because Kennedy was a “white-person’s leader”,  black people would now get out of control without a leader of their own.

So she decided to twist her little Native American classroom exercise and replace teepees and moccasins with blue-eyed and brown-eyed students.

On the first day of her experiment, Elliott decided that since she had blue eyes and was the teacher, blue-eyed students were superior. The blue-eyed and the brown-eyed children were consequently separated based on something as superficial as the color of their eyes.

Blue-eyed children were given brown collars to wrap around their brown-eyed peers–all the best to notice them with.

The blue-eyed children were then given extra helpings of food at lunchtime, five extra minutes at recess, and a chance to play at the new jungle gym at school. The brown-eyed children were left out of these activities. The blue-eyed children were also allowed to sit at the front of the class, while brown-eyed children were kept at the back.

Blue-eyed children were encouraged to play with other blue-eyeds, but told to ignore their brown-eyed peers. Further, blue-eyed students were allowed to drink at the water fountain, while the brown-eyed ones were prohibited from doing so. If they forgot, they were chastised.

Now, of course the children resisted the idea that the blue-eyed students were superior somehow. Elliott countered eloquently, and with a lie: melanin is linked to blue eyes, as well as to intelligence.

The students’ initial resistance wore out.

The blue-eyed “superior” students then became arrogant and bossy. They were mean, and excluded their brown-eyed peers. They thought themselves superior, simply on the basis of their eye color.

What’s even more interesting is that the blue-eyed students did better on some of their exams, and performed at a higher ability on math and reading than they previously had. Just believing they were superior affected their grades positively.

Even more interesting, but perhaps not surprising, was what happened to the brown-eyed students:

They became shy, timid, and frighteningly, subservient. They did poorer on their tests, and during recess, kept themselves away from the blue-eyed children. Each group effectually grouped themselves according to their eye color.

The next week, Elliott added another twist to the experiment: she made the blue-eyed students inferior, and made the brown-eyed ones superior. Brown collars for the blue-eyeds now.

The brown-eyeds then began to act meanly towards the blue-eyed kids, though at a lesser intensity.

Several days later, the blue-eyed students were told they could remove their brown collars. She then had the students reflect on the experiment by writing down what they thought and had learned from the experiment.

Needless to say, the experiment had a major impact on her students. Elliott continued the experiment with her students for years after, and has appeared on Oprah and other venues, promoting anti-discrimination.

What’s even more important is that her students, even when they became adults, continued to remember her lesson. They valued equality over racism, and continued to teach others against discrimination.

A documentary was filmed about her experiment, called Eye of the Storm.

A beautiful video about a modern re-enactment of the experiment can be found here.

Not quite Alibaba: Robber’s Cave Experiment

Muzafer Sherif, an American psychologist of Turkish heritage, made a contribution to psychology via his Realistic Conflict Theory. This theory states that group conflicts, stereotypes and prejudices are the result of competition for resources.

So it’s sort of caveman group 1 meets caveman group 2, all fighting for the same food and other resources, and deciding that the other group is the enemy and need to be hated on.

Sherif performed the famous Robber’s Cave experiment to support his theory.

Unfortunately, Robber’s Cave was not a pirate cove, or Alibaba’s hangout, but it was a state park in Oklahoma. The experiment itself involved two groups of 12-year-old boys, totaling 22 boys.

The boys were all from white middle-class backgrounds, from two-parent Protestant homes, and had no relation or connection to each other. In other words, they were all strangers to each other. The boys were randomly assigned to one of two groups, and each group was unaware of the other group’s existence.

Then, as separate groups, a bus picked them up in the summer of ’54 and took them to a fake summer camp at a 200-acre Boy Scouts camp in Robbers Cave State Park. Even at this state park, the groups were kept separate from each other, but were encouraged to get to know each other as two individual groups via common goals that required discussion, planning and execution.

During the first phase, the two groups did not know of the other group’s existence. Therefore, the boys developed an attachment to the group they belonged to during the first week of camp. They established their own cultural norms via activities such as hiking and swimming. They even chose names for their groups (The Eagles and The Rattlers), and had t-shirts and flags with their group name.

Then came the Competition stage. Over the course of 4-6 days, friction between the two groups was to occur. Basically, there was a turf war.

In this Competition stage, the two groups were brought into competition with each other, such as via baseball, tug-of-war, etc. with prizes like trophies. Individual prizes were also given out to the winning group.

Now, the Rattlers, confident boys that they were, were absolutely confident that they would be the victors. They spend a day discussing the contests, and improving their skills on the ball field, where they were bold enough to put up a “Keep Off” sign. In other words, they set up their own territory. The Rattlers even went so far as to make threatening remarks about what would happen if The Eagles bothered them.

Sherif built in situations that frustrated one group over the other, such as having one group get delayed going to a picnic so that by the time they arrived, the other group had eaten all the food.

Now of course, the prejudice began verbally, with name-calling and taunting. As the Competition phase continued, the verbal abuse became more physical, with The Eagles burning the flag of The Rattlers. The day after, The Rattlers retaliated by ransacking The Eagles’ cabin, stealing private property and overturning the beds. The researchers had to separate the boys because they became so violent with each other.

There was then a 2-day cooling off period, where the boys were instructed to characterize the two groups. Unsurprisingly, each boy described his own group in more favorable terms than the other group.

The results of this experiment indicated that Sherif’s Realistic Conflict Theory was correct; inter-group conflict can produce prejudice and negative behavior.

Now, a major ethical concern with the experiment was deception: the boys were not told of the nature of the experiment, nor were they protected from harm, either psychological or physical, to the best of the researchers’ abilities. The sample was also biased: middle-class, white, and young, the sample is hardly powerful enough to generalize to larger groups, such as nations.

The Three Christs of Ypsilanti

Because, apparently, one Jesus isn’t enough.

In the 1950’s, psychologist Milton Rokeach conducted an experiment where he brought together three psychiatric patients who all claimed to be Jesus.

These three patients were made to live together for two years, in an attempt to determine whether their beliefs would change.

Now, early on, there were heated exchanges. One patient would yell to another, “No, you will worship me!” to which he was replied, “No! I will not worship you!” and such things. You can imagine what kinds of exchanges would have occurred between these delusional Jesus Christs.

Now, Rokeach was no fool. He knew that the psychological traditions of his day did not probe well into individual identities. The stories of Secret Agents who felt that they had lost their identities were intriguing to Rokeach, as they would be to most anyone.

With these interests and experiences in mind, Rokeach set out to determine is a person’s self of self can be challenges in a controlled setting, such as a psychiatric hospital, under his eye. That is, if the Bible says there is only one Jesus, and a person believes themselves to be Jesus, what would happen to their self-identity if they are confronted with another who claims to also be Jesus.

It’s certainly a question to wonder. And Rokeach wrote all about it in his book, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti.

Rokeach was not the first to bring about this sort of Jesus get-together. In the 1660’s, Simon Morin, whom Voltaire wrote about in one of his essays, claimed to be Jesus. However, at one point, Morin had been committed to a psychiatric unit (or madhouse, as they were called), where he met with another man who also claimed to be Jesus. Morin deemed that other man to be ridiculous, and then recognized his own “ridiculousness”, and thus renounced his Jesus identity. However, this recognition did not last long, and Morin was thereafter burned at the stake.

Going back to Rokeach. He was rather humane with the patients, for that era, that is. He figured, smart man that he was, that a cure could not be had for these men. However, he also recognized that we draw our self-identities from rather weak foundations, and can build up beliefs that may not be grounded in a solid reality.

What was not so great, or smart, was how the researchers of the study manipulated the three men, simply out of curiosity. The three men, Clyde, Leon and Joseph, were, to put it mildly, manipulated. Leon, for example, received letters from a character he believed to be his wife. His “wife” professed her love to him, and also suggested small changes to Leon’s routine.

Joseph received false letters from the head of the hospital, suggesting changes to his (Joseph’s) routine that would lead to recovery.

In both these instances, the Jesus identity is progressively challenges, until things begin to get uncomfortable, and contact is cut off.

Interestingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the Jesus identities are not budged. The three Jesuses continue to argue and even fight, but their self-belief does not budge. Clyde claims that the other Jesuses are actually dead, and there are machines inside the bodies that are producing the false Jesus claims. Joseph and Leon claim that the others are crazy. Of course, they never claim the same about themselves, for the same Jesus-identity belief.

Even after two years, the Jesus identities do not shift. Rokeach eventually goes to Freudian lore, and states that perhaps the mistaken identities are due to some sort of sexual identity confusion. Rokeach, in a later edition to his book, apologized for the way he ran his experiment, stating that he had no right to interfere with the patient’s lives the way he did.

Rokeach, however, is still a fascinating man who contributed to psychology. He built the Rokeach Value System, which is used in empirical psychological work to classify people’s values. He also conducted a study where he determined that racial prejudice is due to people trying to make themselves feel better, to put it in simpler terms, and that the ones who are most prejudiced also tend to be lower in terms of their socioeconomic status (SES). That is, prejudice is inversely related to SES.


Manic Monday: The Monster Experiment

We have probably all met or known of someone who had a stuttering problem. We now know that it is not necessarily a genetic problem, one that cannot be gotten over.

Dr. Wendell Johnson, a speech pathologist in the 1930s, wanted to show that the prevailing stuttering theories of his time—that stuttering was a genetic issue and not something that could be gotten over—was wrong.

Dr. Johnson he thought that labelling of children as stutterers could make them worse, and in some cases cause children to start stuttering. To prove his point, he thought up an experiment that today is called the ‘Monster Study’.

Sounds scary.

Twenty-two young orphans were recruited as participants, and divided into two groups. The first were labelled ‘normal speakers’ and the second ‘stutterers’. Very importantly, only half of the group labelled stutterers showed signs of stuttering.

Throughout the experiment, the normal speakers were given positive encouragement. Some of the things told to them were, “You’ll outgrow [the stuttering], and you will be able to speak even much better than you are speaking now. . . . Pay no attention to what others say about your speaking ability for undoubtedly they do not realize that this is only a phase.”

However, the issue of the experiment lies in the treatment of the other group. They were told things like, “The staff has come to the conclusion that you have a great deal of trouble with your speech. . . . You have many of the symptoms of a child who is beginning to stutter. You must try to stop yourself immediately. Use your will power. . . . Do anything to keep from stuttering. . . . Don’t ever speak unless you can do it right. You see how [the name of a child in the institution who stuttered severely] stutters, don’t you? Well, he undoubtedly started this very same way.”

The group labelled stutters were made more self-conscious than they already were of their stuttering. They were told about stuttering, told to take care not to repeat unnecessary words. Teachers and other staff at the orphanage were recruited—unknowingly—to reinforce the stuttering label (the researchers told the teachers and staff that the whole group were stutterers).

Of the six normal children of the stuttering group, FIVE began to stutter after the negative therapy. Of the five children who had already been stuttering, THREE became worse. Only ONE child of the normal group had more speech problems after the experiment.

To the researchers’ credit, once they realized the power of their experiment, they tried to undo the damage. However, it was to no avail. The effects of labeling the children as stutterers were permanent.

There were some ethical issues to this experiment:

  1. The children were never told they had been part of the experiment, and only found out 6 decades later when a newspaper revealed things
  2. The teachers and staff at the orphanage were misled about the study, and were never debriefed
  3. The study was never published. This is an issue because without publication, findings cannot prove beneficial

The University of Iowa, where Dr. Johnson was working at the time of the experiment, issued a formal apology 36 years after Dr. Johnson’s death. They called the experiment regrettable and indefensible.

Manic Monday: BoBo dolls and little kids

Bandura’s famous experiment using children and bobo dolls isn’t exactly twisted, but it’s still very interesting.

Albert Bandura was interested in determining whether or not a child exposed to violence would engage in violence. And hey, what better way to figure this out than to use inflatable clowns?

Bandura pushed the social learning theory–observations of others mold social behaviors, especially in children. This makes sense. After all, we learn by observing our parents or guardians, for good or for bad.

66 children were subjects of the bobo doll experiment. Two adult males served as the models, and one adult female served as the experimenter.

The children were brought into a semi-darkened room and made to watch a video on television.

As Bandura’s paper states:


These were the four scenarios:

1. The model laid the doll on its side, punched its nose and said, “Pow, right in the nose, boom, boom.”

2. The model then raised the doll and pommeled it in the head with a mallet. (Talk about showcasing some major violence here…) With each hit of the mallet, the model said, “Suckeroo..stay down”.

3. The model moved on to kick the doll around the room, saying “fly away.”

4. Finally, the model threw rubber balls at the bobo doll, each hit accompanied by “bang”.

The children, by the way, had been segregated into three groups: positive reward, punishment, and no-consequence condition.

For those in the model-rewarded condition:


For those in the punishment condition:


and for those in the no-consequence condition:


After all of this, the children were escorted to the experimental room. Now the fun begins.

The experimental room contained a number of objects, some of which can already be guessed:




And yes, this really happened:


So what do you think were the results?

1. Children exposed to the violent model tended to imitate the exact behavior they had observed, even when the adult was no longer present in the room with them

2. While children of both genders in the non-aggressive group did exhibit less aggression than the control group, boys who had observed an opposite-sex model behave non-aggressively were more likely than those in the control group to engage in violence

3.  Boys who had observed the adult males behaving violently were more influenced than those who had observed the female models behaving aggressively. In the same-sex aggressive groups, the boys were more likely to imitate physical acts of violence while the girls were more likely to imitate acts of verbal aggression. This makes sense, considering girls tend to be more vocally communicative and dole out punishments socially by saying nasty things, while boys tend to be more physically dominant and aggressive and gain social status more by physical power.

And if you want to see a video of the children actually being aggressive: