Sussing Out Our Sense of Superiority

Our judging brains are powerful things. Within nanoseconds of seeing or meeting someone, we decide whether or not we like them. We are attracted or repulsed.

My meditation practice, in addition to my intention to treat others respectfully, helps me notice the train of judgments that seems to spontaneously arise when I meet someone new or when I encounter someone whom I already know. Thankfully, I can now more easily notice the judgments and step aside from the case they are making inside my head for how I’m supposed to feel about this person versus seeing them with fresh eyes in the moment.

What is this need to judge others and feel superior to them?

In part, it is an expression of the survival habits in the brain to determine whether anyone we meet is friend or foe, part of my tribe or not. But that doesn’t explain it all. Even tribes create in and out groups. An influential contributor to this tendency is the apparent need to protect a sense of who we think we are, or the self. Let’s explore how a sense of “self” develops.

According to Buddhist psychology, there are five steps or elements called skandhas through which we develop a sense of self. These five are:

  • Form: our physical bodies, i.e., my body;
  • Feeling: the immediate sense of liking, disliking or being indifferent to whatever we are perceiving;
  • Perception: quickly determining whether someone is friend or foe, often based on past experience;
  • Concept: also known as “mental formations,” this step strengthens or hardens our sense of self by adding nuance to our perceptions. For example, by adding names or labels for others, “Oh, you are XXX (fill in your label), so we can’t talk, let alone be friends.”
  • Consciousness: the sometimes-hazy or unconscious train of thought or stream of consciousness we experience every day that aggregates the other skandhas into a sense of being a separate, solid self. “I am this. I am not that.” (Skandha means “aggregate” in Sanskrit.)

The illusion of a solid sense of self appears to be inexorably intertwined with the survival mechanisms in the brain. Therefore, when our sense of self is challenged—someone appears to differ from us, or their worldview conflicts with ours—we are quick to defend ourselves and see ourselves as superior to the “other.”

Although these skandhas were defined centuries ago, we now know that there are neural correlates for them. Leading the charge in the development of a strong sense of self is the Default Mode Network (DMN) in the brain. The DMN turns on when we are “doing nothing,” i.e., not doing anything that requires focus and effort. When the DMN is active, we tend to focus on ourselves: our thoughts, emotions, relationships, who has liked our Facebook pages, who ignored us at work, ad infinitum. The DMN appears to frame every event and bit of minutiae in our lives in terms of how it affects us. In this way, it “makes each of us the center of the universe as we know it,” according to Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson in Altered Traits.

To our peril, when the DMN is active, not only do we focus on the self, we focus on what’s troubling us. We often find it troubling when we feel, perceive, or conceive of others as not being “like me” or being a potential foe. We then protect ourselves from these troubling thoughts by making others inferior and ourselves superior.

As Elizabeth Strout wrote, “It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time.” She continued, “Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.”

Not only is this judgment instantaneous, but it also often happens outside of our conscious awareness and influences our behavior, too often in destructive ways.

AnchorGiven that this is a vestige of how our brains evolved, what can we do about it? Start by noticing your thoughts, especially your judgments about others. What is going on when you start putting yourself above others? Or, when you start believing that you are superior to others? Is there a pattern? Does it relate to your own insecurities about who you are and/or something related to the other? Perhaps their gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, education, profession, socio-economic class, or position in a hierarchy?

Noticing is the key. Becoming aware of your tendency to feel superior to another person or group of people opens up choice. It creates freedom to choose whether you want to continue with a sense of superiority or bring fresh eyes, unpolluted by the past, to the situation and those in it.

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