Feeling Superior: Limited to Humans?
March 9, 2015 12:10 PM   Subscribe

Is feeling superior to others a purely human trait? And I'll add that I know the "survival of the fittest" is instinctive in many species. But I'm speaking of a more reasoned decision to feel superior to others.
posted by Taken Outtacontext to Science & Nature (9 answers total)
At our current level of knowledge I'd say there's no way to answer this definitively, but among any group of social animals, from bees to fish to gorillas, there's usually going to be some kind of class hierarchy. We can't speak to or communicate with, say, a lion at the head of his pride to ask if he feels superior to the more subordinate males, but he behaves in a superior way toward them and takes various privileges by virtue of his superior status.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:22 PM on March 9, 2015 [7 favorites]

I want to amplify Liz's answer, which I think is right.

A decent model for "feeling superior to others" might be: having a mental representation of one's social status as elevated.

Many animals have what seem to be status hierarchies. It's a little trickier to say that they have mental representations of social status. In the case of social insects, for example, different castes might just have different behavioral scripts, determined in some sense by social position but not requiring any explicit representation of social position. The worker doesn't know she's a worker, she just knows that she has to perform some particular tasks.

Humans have relatively very complex and flexible social arrangements. Some researchers think this is the most important differentiator between humans and close animal relatives. We are capable of very subtle shadings of feeling superior. Often, if we say someone feels superior to others, we mean it in a sense beyond brute facts of social hierarchy -- for example, that they believe they have higher status than they actually do; or that they do have higher status but flaunt it in a way that is counter to norms of politeness. So the idea of feeling superior starts to implicate second-order beliefs about status (beliefs about others beliefs about status), cultural norms -- high-level stuff.

These kinds of subtleties have little place in most animal social orders. I understand that chickens have a rigid social hierarchy, but that it is not ambiguous and flexible the way ours is -- all the chickens share a clear conception of the hierarchy. It's the relative fluidity of human social hierarchies that makes social intelligence such a valuable asset for us (which, again, some researchers think is the major driver behind our big brains and unusual general intelligence). And that fluidity is what makes our rich vocabulary of social hierarchy concepts useful.

So there is certainly social hierarchy in many animals. In some subset of those animals, there is probably something like a mental concept of social hierarchy, which we can use to start making sense of feeling superior to others. But a lot of the idea of feeling superior to others only makes sense in the context of a flexible, ambiguous social hierarchy like ours, something which I think is shared by fewer animals (great apes? dolphins? wolves? more?).
posted by grobstein at 12:48 PM on March 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

The dominant male in gorilla groups actually change colour (silver back) and increases in size and behaves significantly differently from other males in the group. Males of a certain age and size may 'decide' to challenge the silver back and sometimes do succeed. There are dominance hierarchies in all kinds of social mammals all the way down to rabbits (with dominant female rabbits even peeing on subordinates and their subordinate's living spaces in burrows). Even solitary mammals like cats still engage in dominance behaviors like intruding on each others territories and marking turf.

I'll add that I know the "survival of the fittest" is instinctive in many species.

You should unlearn this in this context as it is a social-darwinist misinterpretation of what is actually meant by fittest which in evolutionary terms.
posted by srboisvert at 1:19 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

You should unlearn this in this context as it is a social-darwinist misinterpretation of what is actually meant by fittest which in evolutionary terms.

srboisvert, would you explain what you mean?

showbiz_liz and grobstein, thank you for your answers. Grobstein, after reading your comment, I think that one could say that humans are the only animals who feel or believe they are superior to others. As the words "feel" and "believe" indicate that higher level of understanding. Would you agree with that?
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 3:08 PM on March 9, 2015

Taken, I think you might want to check out the Wikipedia page on animal consciousness. Long story short: for a very long time, humans (at least modernish Western humans) thought of humans as individuals and animals as, basically, non-sapient objects, and drew a very thick line between the two categories. We are increasingly learning that this isn't really valid, and that some animals do have varying levels of some form or another of what we call consciousness.

I personally believe that the difference between humans and other animals is purely a matter of degree, but we can only observe animals, we can't really communicate with them with any degree of sophistication, so we can't know for sure. But many animals have been shown to have a sense of self (see the mirror test), to mourn their dead, to learn new skills from others, etc, so I would not feel comfortable saying that no non-human animal can 'feel superior' to another.
posted by showbiz_liz at 3:34 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

In fact, though this is where it gets speculative, I'd be somewhat surprised if it turned out that human are the only animals who experience a feeling of social superiority or inferiority. It's likely that the ability to sort other members of your group into a social hierarchy is an evolved trait to help us deal with living in large groups. We can't all be top dog, so to speak, so it's actually helpful for group cohesion* if some people are classed as superior to others, for reasons of strength, charisma, intelligence, or whatever else.

Sure, you could argue "but Mean Betty in algebra KNOWS she's smugly asserting her superiority, and the strongest gorilla in the group is acting on pure mindless instinct, so it's totally different!" But why do you think that? How could you know that?

This is a question that the greatest scientists and philosophers haven't adequately answered, so just read up and think about it. It's really a fascinating subject.

*This is, of course, purely evolutionary. I'm not advocating any kind of horrible -ism here!
posted by showbiz_liz at 3:41 PM on March 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Thanks showbiz_liz. Provocative discussion.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 3:42 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'd like to underline the difference between social status and survival fitness. The two are only slightly related and may not be related at all.

Individuals with higher status are generally acknowledged to have more good traits than individuals with lower status. The coolest kid in the village will be richer, smarter, prettier, faster, stronger and so on. But there are a huge host of variables that effect survival that are not immediately apparent and are not on this list.

How good are you at maintaining internal supplies of folic acid? Are you prone to acne? Do you have two types of colour receptors in your eyes, or three, or four? Do you have weak joints? Do you miscarry easily? Are you a picky eater or a clean plate ranger? Is your phlegm runny or thick? Do you startle or panic easily and then have trouble calming down? Do you tend to have high blood pressure?

Being prone to acne lowers your social status because you don't look as pretty. However having facial skin that produces lots of oil is a survival trait because you have a greater degree of protection against wind burn and chapping in cold, wet or windy conditions.

If your phlegm tends to be thick and clog up your passages easily you may carry a recessive gene for cystic fibrosis. Congratulations. Your chances of surviving a bout of diphtheria are better than double that of someone with that gene. Up until 1900 one infant in ten died of diphtheria. So you want to be horridly glucky and prone to making un-lovely throat clearing noises. Being a mouth-breather is better.

Does the idea of getting into a competition with anyone else make your heart beat painfully and make you desperate to escape? You are wired to avoid conflict at all costs and might be the only survivor when your tribe comes up against an invader. Being highest in the social hierarchy is often a serious handicap to survival. Classically the alpha male type dies young because he burns himself out. Having high social status is simply one of many strategies that animals use when living in a group. There are other strategies that may provide greater longevity and a greater number of offspring. Being inoffensive, or useful, or hard to locate, or dependent might be more successful than winning the dominance competitions.

It's also worth noting that people who self-identify as high status are frequently over-estimating how other people see them - for example, consider the number of people who go to law school. Now compare that number with the ones who actually make partner. The majority of them have fallen for a shill that assured them they were up and coming high status in order to burden them with astronomical debt, and enhance the status of the students who were pre-selected to make partner before they ever filled in their law school application.

Or consider the number of young athletes who appear to be superior in so many ways, but in fact are just cannon fodder. They are granted the temporary appearance of high status and superiority and probably get laid a lot while they are in high school. By the time they are thirty their High School football days are over and they are probably just wage slaves like the former kids who went in for drama or art or music, except perhaps that they have a bum knee to remind them of their glory days.

It seems to me that people who are of higher social status do not so much feel superior to others, as they are oblivious to them. The higher your social status, the lower your empathy and awareness of others. People with high status stand in front of people with low status because they literally don't see them. A wealthy oligarch staying at a five star hotel on business probably doesn't see himself as superior to the chamber maid who comes into his room to clean the toilet, because he doesn't register her as having any status. I think he would no more feel superior to her than he would feel superior to the bed. It would never occur to him to make a comparison.

In my experience people who feel superior to others are often people obsessed with their own identity. They are trying so hard to define who they are that they are looking at other people to figure out where their borders are rather than looking at themselves. If I am insecure about my identity as a writer, I will want to compare myself to other authors so that I can say I am a better writer than they are. The more insecure I am the more I will make these comparisons and the stronger I will feel about them. I will be scathing of their ability to write dialogue, sneer at anyone who would post a work on line that was not properly polished and be kindly and patronizing to emerging writers because you know, noblesse oblige, I was just learning to write once too. But if I am secure in my own identity I will simply write. If I spend time critiquing emerging writers it will be because it's fascinating to see their work evolve the same way it is fascinating to see my own.

Feeling superior to others is likely to be an ego defense from feeling inadequate. So then to look at your question, if a male stag feels superior to the other stags in the forest, is this because he is aware that he can out butt them in a head-banging contest? Or is it possible that he would construct an ego-defense where he identified himself as being more important than the other stags? My guess is no. It's not that stags and other animals don't have the neuro-chemical complexity to fool themselves into bluffing an opponent and maybe even carrying off the bluff; it's that they don't have the linguistic capacity to define the word superiority, or to define themselves in hierarchical terms. Their emotions - which of course some people will also even argue that animals do not feel - could be a mixture of feeling strong, of feeling disgust, of feeling anger, and of feeling confidence but not, I think, superiority. The precise shade of feeling requires concepts that can only be expressed in words the stag does not have.
posted by Jane the Brown at 10:33 PM on March 9, 2015 [6 favorites]

Jane the Brown, what a great comment. Thank you.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 9:40 AM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

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