Is an inferiority complex a mental illness

A few years ago a youth attorney told me that his own impression of violent young men just did not fit the common image of violent criminals. According to the textbooks, adolescents who were prone to aggressive attacks suffered from far too low self-esteem. On the contrary, he experiences the clients as - as I call them - "egotists", as people with a grandiose exaggerated feeling of superiority and a completely exaggerated need for recognition.

However, the lawyer and his colleagues did not want to oppose the scientific studies of the last few decades. So they would continue to try to rehabilitate the young offenders by increasing their self-esteem. However, they would not achieve much with it. The men remained socially conspicuous.

The fact that excessive aggressiveness arises from low self-esteem has long been considered a matter of fact. American teachers, social workers, and lawyers are learning that reinforcing the self-love of young people will prevent acts of violence. A high opinion of themselves also helps children and young people to have more social skills and better school performance. It goes so far that students write long lists of why they are wonderful people or sing songs to praise themselves. Many parents and teachers no longer dare to blame the children. They fear that the protégés could suffer mental damage because of the criticism and then develop into brutal daredevils. At some sporting events, everyone gets a trophy so that nobody has to feel like a failure.

Doubts are raised again and again as to whether such a treatment is the right thing to do so that young people can build a healthy self-confidence. But apparently no one has ever asked about the scientific background for the prevailing doctrine itself. Where is the evidence that inferiority complexes generate violence? When my colleagues and I came across the subject in the early 1990s, we found plenty of specialist articles based on the supposedly "well-known fact" that the cause of violence was low self-esteem. But nowhere, in any book, in any scientific essay, has this view been formally justified. We certainly did not find any empirical evidence.

On the contrary: what research has now found does not support this theory. The complex picture that is slowly emerging says something completely different: People with a negative self-image usually muddle through life badly and rightly. You do not want to attract attention and therefore avoid offensive behavior as much as possible. Nothing in their behavior indicates that they would desperately seek to excel in front of others at all costs. Aggressive behavior towards others is risky, and people with low self-esteem are more likely to avoid the risk. When these people fail at something, they usually blame themselves, not others.

It was clear to us that we needed a different theory to explain the personality profile of violent criminals. Where could we start? In this work we were guided, among other things, by how arrogant despots apparently see themselves. Saddam Hussein is not necessarily seen as a humble, reserved, self-doubted contemporary. Hitler's madness about the "master race" hardly speaks in favor of an inferiority complex. The self-image, so we thought, perhaps really has an influence on whether someone tends to be aggressive - only the low self-esteem does not harbor such a risk, on the contrary, the excessive self-love.

Of course, not everyone who is self-confident is prone to violence. But for some people the matter can become critical when others shake their self-image - that's our thesis. Everyone likes to have a high opinion of themselves. And nobody happily corrects their self-assessment downwards. But, in our opinion, people with a high, albeit exaggerated, self-esteem that does not support themselves often defend themselves without considering losses. In this context we speak of threatened egotism, of threatened self-love.

In no case do we claim that behind every act of violence there is a threat to self-love, not even that an endangered self-image always degenerates into aggressiveness. The reasons for human behavior are far too diverse and manifold for that. Much of the violence has little or nothing to do with the perpetrator's self-assessment. We actually believe, however, that an overly high opinion of one's worth means a considerable risk of violence. For such aggressive actions, which apply to the self-image of the perpetrator, threatened self-love is likely to form the background. We also believe that this insight should enable action to be taken to limit acts of violence.

How can you determine which of the two theories is correct, that of low or high self-esteem? Social psychologists do not have a single scientific method to clarify complex relationships like this. Usually, however, the researchers use several methods side by side. Then, if all the results come together, that at least means that they are on a promising track.

On the one hand, we had to determine the self-esteem of test subjects. There are standardized questionnaires for this purpose. They say something like: "How well do you get on with people?" or "Are you getting on well overall with your job or your education?" The respondent can choose between several answers. Finally, the total score for the person is somewhere on a scale that goes from very low to very high self-esteem. Strictly speaking, one should not speak of "people with high self-esteem" as if they were a separate group. The way of expression makes communication easier. I mean people whose test value on the scale is above the mean.

Lay people often think that a person's self-esteem fluctuates significantly. But in the tests it turns out to be pretty stable. Despite the different daily form, it changes little. Even if someone suffers a severe setback or is buoyed, the self-image soon settles back to the old level. It is most likely to experience a greater change after a major change in life. For example, if a sportsman moves from high school to college and finds that the competition is much greater there, it can change people.

In addition to the self-assessment, we had to quantify the aggressiveness of the test subjects. Establishing this is methodologically more difficult. Some researchers simply ask people whether they get angry easily or get into an argument easily. Scientists have already compared this information several times with the self-confidence determined at the same time. In most previous studies, however, no clear connection between the two characteristics could be identified, neither for high nor for low self-esteem - with one exception: at the end of the 1980s, a group led by Michael H. Kernis from the University of Georgia in Athens came to the Idea that maybe it depends on the stability of the self-image.

The researchers did this by testing individual people on different occasions, respectively. In fact, some people's self-image fluctuated more than others. This resulted in a relationship to aggressiveness: the least willingness to use violence was found in people with a high and stable self-esteem; the highest, on the other hand, was felt by those with a high but unstable opinion; People with low self-esteem were in between, regardless of whether their self-image was stable or unstable.

Other researchers looking for such connections divide people into higher-level categories, such as gender. According to such surveys, men have, on average, higher self-esteem than women and are also more aggressive. Depressed people, on the other hand, often suffer from poor self-esteem, as the studies have shown. at the same time, they are comparatively seldom inclined to violence. Psychopaths, on the other hand, tend to particularly aggressive and criminal behavior when they have a very high opinion of themselves.

There are few systematic surveys of the self-image of murderers, rapists and other criminals. Most of them are rather anecdotal individual reports. Nevertheless, a clear pattern emerges. Often violent criminals describe themselves as superior to their fellow human beings. You consider yourself a very special, extraordinarily valuable personality who deserves preferential treatment. Many murders and assaults stem from the perpetrator's self-esteem taking a blow - feeling insulted, belittled, or humiliated. (It should be borne in mind, however, that criminals often live in circles in which humiliation threatens more than just self-image. Appreciation and respect are closely linked to social status. A degradation can have significant, sometimes life-threatening consequences for the person concerned .)

The same pattern - high but unstable self-esteem - is repeated in studies of other violent groups. The members of street gangs also like to see themselves as high-handed. They fail as soon as this dazzling self-image is questioned. The same applies to smaller children. The tyrants in the playground consider themselves superior to other children. It is not they who have low self-esteem, but their victims. The same is true in the adult world: groups who are prone to violence usually represent clear value systems that clearly show their superiority over other societies. As the sociologist Daniel Chirot of the University of Washington in Seattle explains in his book "Modern Tyrants", proud nations often wage war if they do not feel they are being treated with due respect.

Or let's take drunks. It is well known that alcohol plays a role in very many violent crimes, perhaps even in the majority. People generally react more violently to provocation when they are intoxicated. However, there is little research into a connection with self-esteem. But the concept of threatened self-love could also fit in this example: alcohol consumption tends to improve self-image. On the other hand, drunkenness also changes people in other ways. For example, it causes decreased self-control. It is difficult to say what ultimately facilitates the outbreak of violence in a drunken state.

What if someone lends a hand - which is also a form of aggression? In many suicides, threatened self-love also appears to be involved. Think of the rich, respected businessman who goes bankrupt and takes his own life, as well as the high-ranking personality who has lost his honor or is embroiled in a scandal. The shiny self-image is no longer valid. But they cannot accept the less desirable new identity.

All of this speaks against the theory of low self-esteem among violent criminals. But to the best of our knowledge, no one had previously verified the connection in controlled laboratory studies. We wanted to catch up on that. If targeted, sophisticated tests produced the same result, that would reinforce our thesis. These experiments were directed by Brad J. Bushman of Iowa State University in Ames.

Before the actual tests, we had to determine the key characteristics of the participants. First of all, it was important to determine their self-image. To be as sure as possible, we first measured her self-esteem with two different methods. But that didn't seem enough to us. We suspected that only some of the people who believed in themselves had a pronounced aggressive streak. We also tested the participants for narcissism in hopes of filtering out this group.

In clinical psychology, narcissism in its pure form is considered a mental illness. Characteristic for this are: an inflated, exaggerated self-image, striving for excessive admiration, an exaggerated, exaggerated need for recognition, lack of empathy (empathy for others), tendency to take advantage of others, tendency to envy or the desire to arouse envy, pronounced fantasies of size and arrogance . With a scale that Robert Raskin from the Institute for Behavioral Sciences in Tulsa (US state Oklahoma) developed together with colleagues, narcissistic tendencies beyond the morbid can also be recorded.

We also used this scale to measure the self-image of our subjects. The ratings for self-esteem and narcissism do not have to, but can match. If you have a high opinion of yourself, you are not immediately a narcissist. He may be distinguished by any ability and may be aware of it without being arrogant and considering himself something better. On the other hand, it is rare for a narcissist to have low self-esteem.

With these values ​​in the background, we then let the participants of the experiment compete against each other in pairs. In order to incite any offended self-love, they had to explain their opinion on abortion in a short essay and then apparently examine the adversary's essay. However, we distributed fictitious drafts. And we rated the essays of the participants at random. Either we wrote a very good overall grade underneath with the addition: "Great, a round thing!" Or we distributed very bad points and commented: "I've rarely seen such a poor job!"

After returning the essays, the actual test began. It was important to react as quickly as possible to given tasks. Whoever was faster was allowed to punish the other - with a loud, unpleasant noise. Duration and volume - so to speak an expression of his aggressiveness - the winner was allowed to determine himself within given limits.

(For safety reasons, researchers hardly ever operate with electric shocks as a "punishment" as in famous and controversial experiments in the 1960s. We also wanted to avoid the "teacher / student" distribution created at the time, because some of the "teachers" really believed , the punishment helps with learning.)

We had foreseen correctly: Narcissists who had delivered an allegedly miserable essay gave their opponent the unpleasant noise particularly forcefully. The non-narcissists, on the other hand, were clearly gentler, even those with high self-confidence. And also the narcissists, who had supposedly received praise from the opponent beforehand, distributed significantly fewer "blows" and thus behaved less aggressively than the offended narcissists. The result spoke in favor of our theory of threatened self-love.

Would the narcissists take out their anger on anyone too? We checked this in a counter-attempt. This time, half of the test subjects in the reaction competition allegedly received a new opponent who had nothing to do with the essay evaluation. The aggrieved narcissists did not abuse these innocents excessively. Only when they dealt with the alleged offender did he feel their anger.

In fact, this behavior pattern fits in with many other observations. Even if it is contrary to popular belief - that provoked violence is directed against uninvolved third parties is quite rare.

A peripheral experience sheds light on the attitudes of narcissists. For television recordings, we repeated the tests with a few new subjects. One participant scored almost the highest possible score for narcissism. This man behaved remarkably aggressive in the further course. Then we showed him the recorded scenes with the note that he could prohibit the broadcast. But he wanted the film to be broadcast - he thought he was great. Thereupon Bushman, the investigator, took the man aside and indicated to him that maybe he didn't want the whole of America to see him on television in this way, as a highly aggressive narcissist. Finally, the film showed him cursing badly when he got his poorly graded essay back and how he laughed when exposing his opponent to the highest levels of noise. But the participant just grinned, shrugged and said he wanted to come on TV. Then Bushman suggested that they at least make his face unrecognizable. Completely baffled, the man refused. He emphasized that he would prefer his name and telephone number to be included.

How does it all look now in ordinary life? Do our laboratory results even correspond to normal conditions? Conducting studies with violent criminals is not that easy. But we got access to two groups of violent criminals who were serving prison terms.We presented them with the questionnaires on self-esteem and narcissism. We compared the data with the norms for young men - mostly college students - from two dozen published studies. In terms of self-esteem, the prison inmates as a group were roughly in the middle of all values. In narcissism, however, they got the highest average. Obviously, the examined groups of people differed decisively in this trait. The imprisonment had not taken away the illusion of the young men who had become conspicuous that they were God's gift to the world.

Still, do such results really reflect the depths of criminals? When we describe our findings, we often get to hear: "Perhaps only outwardly, violent criminals seem so self-righteous, just pretend something! Wouldn't it be possible that they actually think very little of themselves and just don't want to admit it? " But the objection is not entirely logical. People with recognizably low self-esteem do not behave aggressively - we know that from numerous studies. Why should it be any different with a hidden low self-esteem? The only difference between the two cases would be that the real self-image is hidden in one case. Some people's propensity for violence was not based on their lower self-esteem, but on the fact that it did not come to light. But the covering shell is precisely self-love - which brings us back to the theory of threatened egotism.

Scientists have also repeatedly looked in vain for any signs of a soft core in violent criminals. Martin Sanchez-Jankowski, who lived with various youth gangs for ten years and wrote one of the most knowledgeable papers about them, states: "Some studies of youth gangs suggest that many of the members have a rough shell but are insecure inside. This view is wrong ! " Dan Olweus of the University of Bergen in Norway, an expert on child tyranny, says: "Contrary to what psychologists and psychiatrists believe, we have found no evidence that despotic boys are fearful and insecure under the harsh exterior. "

Again, we do not want to overestimate any of these statements. Because so far psychology has found it difficult to measure hidden facets of personality. This is especially true for traits that someone doesn't even admit to themselves. On the empirical as well as on the theoretical side, however, there is currently nothing to suggest that violent people have deeply hidden self-doubts, even if this goes against the common view that violence is related to low self-esteem.

An exaggerated self-image itself does not immediately result in aggressiveness. Narcissists do not behave more aggressively than other people - as long as nobody insults or criticizes them. But then - the occasion may seem futile to others - they explode all too easily. According to the concept of threatened self-love, external circumstances also matter. The decisive factor for the outbreak of aggression is which characteristics of the person coincide with which situation. Even if we don't yet know in detail how cause and effect interact, this is probably the most accurate model of thought available to predict violence and aggressiveness.

The findings raise doubts as to whether good things happen to young people when they practice a positive self-image in school or in a sports club, regardless of the circumstances, as is common in America in many places. Because a high opinion of oneself may arouse self-conceit and make people so hypersensitive to criticism that they get angry at the slightest cause, especially if this positive self-image is not justified. Encouraging children and other people to be proud of accomplishments and good deeds is perfectly fine with me. For many reasons, however, it seems questionable to me to teach people an undeservedly high opinion of themselves. Praise should be linked to merit - including small advances. It may not be freely distributed, as if everyone had a right to it.

Our research shows that people with low self-esteem are unlikely to be aggressive. More dangerous are those who consider themselves to be better than their fellow men. One should beware of people with an exaggerated self-image that is not based on reality, as well as of high-handed types who want to be constantly admired. Those who prick these air bubbles make such conceited contemporaries extremely uncomfortable.


Threatened Egotism, Narcissism, Self-Esteem and Direct and Displaced Aggression: Does Self-Love or Self-Hate Lead to Violence? By Brad J. Bushman and Roy F. Baumeister in: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 75, No. 1, p. 219, July 1998.

Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty. By R. F. Baumeister. W. H. Freeman, 1997.

Relation of Threatened Egotism to Violence and Aggression: The Dark Side of High Self-Esteem. By R. F. Baumeister et al. in: Psychological Review, Vol. 103, No. 1, p. 5, January 1996.

From: Spectrum of Science 9/2001, page 70
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This article is included in Spectrum of Science 9/2001