- Hubris is a well-known quality that characterizes tragic heroes, but it isn't quite captured in psychology.
- A new paper identifies seven signals that someone has fallen prey to this potentially harmful set of traits.
- This knowledge about what drives people to abuse power could potentially stop hubris from becoming dangerous.
People with the Dark Triad personality, who manipulate anyone and everyone to get their way, can easily be regarded as the most toxic of individuals. Even adding the fourth quality of sadism, forming the “Dark Tetrad,” can seem to qualify as the worst possible individuals to have to deal with. However, is this really the limit of darkness?
When Dark Gets Even Darker
According to University of Maastricht’s Jean-Paul Selten (2023), toxic personalities may descend to include “exaggerated pride, contempt for others, and a diminished sense of reality.” At that point, they have fallen prey to the fatal personality flaw known as “hubris.” You might be familiar with this term, from Greek mythology, such as the ill-fated Icarus, but there are many other examples from literature such as Jay Gatsby, Macbeth, and Scarlett O’Hara. Disney characters also have their own share of hubris, such as "Aladdin’s" Jafar or "The Little Mermaid"'s Ursula.
Hubris can, sadly, also be found in real life, and if you’re very unlucky, the term might apply to someone in your own world. Perhaps you have a cousin who has become excessively demanding at family occasions. However, she wasn’t always this way. You’ve seen her transform into this while, at the same time, her business has made her wealthy and powerful. You wish she could return to her former, much pleasanter, self.
Selten suggests that there’s a need for diagnosing “hubris syndrome” for people whose pride seems to be reaching pathological proportions. Recognizing that “we should not be too quick to label extremes of behavior” with a diagnosis, he argues that it’s both appropriate and necessary to define hubris as a syndrome due to its potentially dangerous qualities when it characterizes those who rise to the upper echelons of power in the world.
Pride vs. Hubris: What’s the Difference?
Hubris is a quality an individual only can develop after they’ve reached a position of prominence. At that point, they start to spin outside of the realm of the personality disorders normally associated with excessive narcissism or antisocial qualities. Success could breed gracious appreciation of reaching a person’s desired goal, or it could turn a more or less ordinary individual into someone whose desire for power seems insatiable.
Life events can trigger many forms of personality change, but in hubris, those events must be ones that afford people control that they abuse. A person may already be somewhat arrogant, without causing any particular harm other than offending those who must work with them. When they start to turn that corner into hubris, they add disinhibition into the mix. They become reckless, irresponsible, and impulsive. With the power that they’ve acquired, they now begin to take risks not just with their own lives but also with those of all the people who might suffer the consequences of poorly conceived plans.
The 7 Signs of Hubris
Were hubris to become a syndrome, the Dutch researcher maintains, it would have to clear a number of validational criteria, which is true for any new diagnosis or definable entity in psychology. Selten offers a set of seven descriptors, many of which are an extension of prior work (Owen & Davidson, 2009) who applied them to UK and US political figures. In ordinary life, they would translate into these seven criteria:
- The individual must show changes lasting at least three months.
- The individual must have developed this syndrome as an adult.
- The changes come about only after the individual experiences overwhelming success or substantial power.
- Dissociality (lack of regard for others) and disinhibition (impulsiveness) must have grown over time.
- The individual shows extreme grandiosity in the form of entitlement, self-centeredness, and condescension toward others,
- The disinhibition itself must be evident as extreme irresponsibility as well as an inability to make rational plans.
- There is no other health condition that could account for the emergence of these traits, including any type of brain damage or physical illness.
One other quality that might tip you off, though not technically in this list, is when the person starts to use the “royal we” or refers to themself in the third person.
Including hubris as a syndrome could, Selten argues, help mental health professionals play a role in preventing the damage caused by out-of-control leaders who represent, as he notes, “a danger to mankind.” Your relative might not fall into quite that category, but she still could have a very negative impact on the lives of her employees.
Can Knowledge About Hubris Help Prevent It?
In your own casual observations about the people you know and those you view from afar, having the hubris concept as a way to examine their actions and words could have a certain illuminating quality. And if you’re someone who's become successful in your own right, however small that realm might be (such as winning a school council election), it can be helpful to see what steps you need to take to maintain your own inner guardrails. If it’s a relative or friend in this position, see if there are ways you can mitigate the transformation. A dose of reality could potentially bring about a course correction before it's too late to turn back.
In sum, hubris is more than a leftover from ancient Greek mythology, or even literature (and Disney characters). Knowing its signs can help you become a more informed interpreter of the events that can affect your life as you learn to steer clear of those who could use their power to interfere with your own fulfillment.
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Selten J-P (2023). Consider the hubris syndrome for inclusion in our classification systems. Psychological Medicine 53, 5889–5891. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0033291723002672
Owen, D., & Davidson, J. (2009). Hubris syndrome: An acquired personality disorder? A study of US presidents and UK prime ministers over the last 100 years. Brain, 132(Pt 5), 1396–1406. doi:10.1093/brain/awp008