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Kids Don't Really Mind an Inflated Ego—Unless They're Its Target

A new survey of eighth graders suggests that an unjustifiably high opinion of oneself has subtler effects on relationships than previously thought.
(Photo: departmentofed/Flickr)

(Photo: departmentofed/Flickr)

Nobody likes a know-it-all or a snob, or so the conventional wisdom goes. But in a new study, psychologists argue that students who feel unreasonably high on themselves academically don't actually engender their peers' contempt. It takes a sense of superiority targeted at one person to do that, and the chilly feeling that results is often mutual.

Much has been made in years past about the effects of self-esteem, both in academia and the popular press, but the conclusions are often inconsistent with each other. Some studies find enhanced or even inflated self-perceptions can be good for you and lead others to perceive you more positively. Others suggest that an enhanced self-image alienates others and leads you to a life of narcissism and apathy. But goals and methods often vary in these kinds of experiments. In particular, some studies examine a general sense of superiority to others, while some look at what happens when individuals feel superior to specific colleagues or peers. That led German psychologists Katrin Rentzsch and Michela Schröder-Abé to wonder whether there really is a difference between Johnny thinking he's the smartest kid in the room, and Johnny thinking he's smarter than Jenny.

"Feeling superior to a specific other was not so easily forgiven."

To find out, Rentzsch and Schröder-Abé brought their science to that bastion of fraught social politics, eighth grade. They surveyed 330 eighth-grade boys and girls in eight schools in southeast Germany about personality traits, academic self-esteem, whether they felt academically superior to each of their classmates, and whether they liked each fellow student. They also calculated the average of each students' scores in math, physics, German, and English, a measure that allowed them to determine whether students harbored unrealistically high opinions of themselves relative to specific others.

Analyzing their data, the psychologists found that students didn't like or dislike other kids who had unrealistically high opinions of themselves any more than others, as long as they weren't being singled out as the target of a big-headed peer's feelings of superiority. When they were—when one student had an inflated sense of academic ability relative to a specific classmate—targeted students disliked the kids targeting them. Big-egoed students didn't entertain such subtleties, though—they just disliked everybody.

"Our findings may help to explain previous controversial findings on the interpersonal consequences of self-enhancement in that they reveal different effects at two levels of analysis," the authors write in Social Psychological and Personality Science. "Although in our study, students high in habitual self-enhancement tended to dislike others, they were not disliked by others in return; whereas at the relationship level, feeling superior to a specific other was not so easily forgiven."