Ego-Driven Superiority and the Locus of Control

A while back I did a guest post for Karol over at Alarming News, and in it I discussed the concept of locus of control:

[T]he concept of locus of control. From the linked page:

A locus of control orientation is a belief about whether the outcomes of our actions are contingent on what we do (internal control orientation) or on events outside our personal control (external control orientation).” (Zimbardo, 1985, p. 275) Thus, locus of control is conceptualised as referring to a unidimensional continuum, ranging from external to internal. External Locus of Control: Individual believes that his/her behaviour is guided by fate, luck, or other external circumstances. Internal Locus of Control: Individual believes that his/her behaviour is guided by his/her personal decisions and efforts.

To illustrate, a couple of years ago I read a study on the most satisfying professions versus the least satisfying professions. Attorney was among the least satisfying jobs. That’s not surprising. After all, the attorneys in the study cited having a lot of responsibilities and a high workload as their reasons for high dissatisfaction. What was surprising however was that commercial airline pilot and surgeon were among the high satisfaction jobs. Yet these jobs have a much higher level of responsibility than your average attorney. They literally hold the power of life and death in their hands, and in the pilot’s case, hundreds of lives at a time, including his own, are at risk every time he takes off and lands. Why such a difference in job satisfaction then?

What researchers concluded the difference was was locus of control. Lawyers feel like they have little personal control over outcomes, that most of the locus of control in their job is external. They have a ton of responsibilities and a big workload, but the outcome is dependent mostly on outside forces, be it the client’s decisions, the jury’s deliberations, the judge’s rulings, and the supervising partner’s direction. Surgeons and pilots feel like they have a very internal locus of control. They have a feeling of autonomy and the belief that it is largely their own decisions that determine the outcome of the process, and that makes the high responsiblility load much easier to bear. So basically, when one feels like they have a highly internal locus of control, high levels of personal responsibility become much easier to bear. And when someone feels like they have a highly external locus of control, high levels of personal responsibility are harder to bear and lead to anxiety, depression and stress.

Lately we’ve been discussing the laws of ego-driven superiority and the laws of enlightened superiority, and I’ve been describing how preferable the latter is to the former. A major reason for that is that enlightened superiority operates from an internal locus of control, while ego-driven superiority operates from an external locus of control. A quick refresher on the laws before I elaborate:

The Laws of Ego-Driven Superiority

  1. Ego-driven superiority is more concerned about appearing superior than actually being superior.
  2. Ego-driven superiority specifically wants to be better than other people, rather than pursue excellence and greatness for their own sake.
  3. Ego-driven superiority not only wants everyone else to be inferior, but wants to make sure they remain inferior, and will do whatever it takes to keep them from improving themselves significantly.
  4. Ego-driven superiority not only needs to be better than other people, it needs the world to know about the superiority and acknowledge it.
  5. Ego-driven superiority not only needs the world to know about the superiority and acknowledge it, but it also needs people to be envious.
  6. Ego-driven superiority wants to convert you and make you a follower, but never an equal.

The Laws of Enlightened Superiority, because of the addition of social interest (a concept described in the post Theaters of Operation) are the exact opposite of the previous set of laws:

  1. Enlightened superiority is more concerned with actually being the best it can be than simply appearing superior.
  2. Enlightened superiority is more concerned with pursuing greatness for its own sake rather than pursuing greatness primarily to ensure others are inferior.
  3. Enlightened superiority doesn’t mind sharing the tools of superiority with others and giving them the means to improve themselves in similar ways.
  4. Enlightened superiority doesn’t mind having others know about and acknowledge the superiority, but is perfectly fine if such acknowledgment is never received. Such people generate their own validation internally rather than relying on external validation for their self-esteem.
  5. Enlightened superiority has no desire to inspire envy and jealousy in others.
  6. Enlightened superiority, even if it converts you and makes you a follower, ultimately aims to help you become your own guru in time, and is secure enough to even encourages you to someday surpass the master.

For ego-driven superiority to be achieved, a number of external factors need to be satisfied. According to the first law of ego-driven superiority, being great is less important than appearing great. The former depends on internal self-generated factors. The latter though depends on external factors, such as how you look, how you dress, how expensive your belongings are, and how well you can approximate and pull off the trappings of success.

Even if you satisfy the first law of ego-driven superiority and succeed in appearing great, that’s not enough. You specifically need appear better than other people. Yet you’re limited in the extent to which you can control how well others perform or how successful others appear. They may be more talented, they may be on a lucky streak, they may have better connections, etc. Even if they’re not actually better, they may have more resources with which to appear better. All of these things are out of your control.

The other laws of ego-driven superiority also discuss outside forces that are hard for you to control, such as having other people recognize and acknowledge your greatness, kiss your ass, envy you, become converts to your way of thinking, and emulate you without ever going so far as to surpass you.

Narcissists are the champions of ego-driven superiority. Narcissists create a false, grandiose self that appears superior and elite, regardless of how drab, underwhelming or banal the actual reality is, and use the reactions of other people to gauge the effectiveness of this false self and mirror this grandiose image back at them. When other people buy into this false image and reflect it back at the narcissist, she feels validated. When they don’t, she responds with rage and indignation. Narcissists demand other people collaborate with them by treating the false self as the real self and recognizing its superiority.

The problem is no matter how hard you try, such external validation is hard to consistently guarantee, even for the most socially skilled person. You can’t impress everyone, no matter how hard you try. And some people will always hate you or not buy into your image.

Narcissists end up operating chiefly with an external locus of control, because they’re slaves to the external validation that comes from others’ opinion of them, an outside force they have less control over than they want to believe. This is why narcissists are such erratic and explosive drama queens.

Enlightened superiority on the other hand just asks that you do the best you can personally do. Enlightened superiority asks you to understand that working harder and smarter to achieve actual greatness is superior to doing your best to superficially appear great. Enlightened superiority asks that you judge your efforts according to your own internal standards rather than how the end result appears when superficially compared to others’ results. Enlightened superiority asks that you don’t worry about seeking external validation from others in the form of cheap praise, envy, ass-kissing or accolades.

Ego-driven superiority, no matter how well you do or how hard you try, can’t be achieved unless you reach certain goals of external validation. With enlightened superiority, you just need validation from yourself to achieve it, which gives it more of an internal locus of control than ego-driven superiority.

Competition can be productive. Comparing ourselves with others is normal. Even a certain amount of narcissism is healthy. But at the end of the day we all need to worry more about whether we respect and love ourselves rather than whether others are giving us cheap applause and admiration.