A Romantic era oil painting depicts a dramatic scene: a man dressed in elaborate attire of the time, gripping tightly onto a throne. The man wears a mask, adding an air of mystery and intrigue to his character. The setting is filled with the turbulent emotions and heightened drama characteristic of the Romantic period, with a focus on the man's intense expression and the symbolic act of holding onto power. The artwork captures the essence of Romanticism, emphasizing individual emotion, and the sublime beauty of nature, possibly suggested in the background. The use of rich, deep colors and dynamic brushstrokes enhances the emotional depth of the scene.

When I feel uncertain, I instinctually go into disdain. I judge the people I’m surrounded by, deeming them silly, incapable and banal. I ask myself questions like “What am I even doing here?”. I withdraw from the group, and get lost in my head.

This is called arrogance. It’s my go-to defence mechanism, a response to perceived threats — when under threat, grasp for power! This is the polar opposite of fawning (people pleasing),[1] where people protect themselves by playing along — when under threat, relinquish all power!

There are curious symmetries here. Both fawning and arrogance involve pretending like you’re fine. When fawning, you go into excessive agreeableness. When going into arrogance, you get excessively disagreeable. Fawning is about relinquishing control. Arrogance is about grasping for control. I think of fawning as degenerate submissiveness, and arrogance as degenerate dominance.

I call them degenerate because they emulate healthy dominance dispositions in an unhealthy way. To explain in more detail, I need to run you through my views on dominance and hierarchies.


On Dominance and Hierarchies

Dominance is a loaded topic. In “Impro” (page 39), Keth Johnstone writes:

I should really talk about dominance and submission, but I’d create a resistance. Students who will agree readily to raising or lowering their status may object if asked to ‘dominate’ or ‘submit’.

Like Keith, I think of dominance in terms of the status you ‘act out’. Leadership and hierarchies ground themselves in our dominance instincts.[2] In my eyes, there’s a large overlap between leadership, dominance and high status.

Leadership, to me, is about setting direction. It’s about evaluating where things are going, and course-correcting if there’s a need for it. Furthermore, proper leaders ‘hold the narrative’, making sure that everyone knows where they are going, why they are going there, and who they are in relation to the group. Leadership is about shaping the local social reality. Leadership is vital for groups to function. Without a leader to cohere social reality, there is no ‘group’ to talk about.[3]

I’m quite good at this kind of leadership. Whenever I enter a new context, I try to figure out how things work, and how I can help out. If there’s a ‘leadership vacuum’, with people feeling lost and confused, my instinct is to step in and direct. This is usually appreciated.


Mirrored Group Dysfunction

I’m pretty sure that my arrogance and my leadership inclinations are connected. In both cases, I shape social reality. When I step up and lead, I create a structure that helps the group cohere. When I step into arrogance, I craft a group dynamic where I’m in a ‘superior position’ — seeking safety by grasping for power.[4]

Skilled leadership takes the needs of the group into account. The aim is to improve the situation for everyone involved. Arrogance plays on the same dominance instincts in a dysfunctional way, sucking energy from the group rather than improving things. Given how vital proper leadership is to group functioning, it’s an affront to hog the ‘dominance bandwidth’ of a group with a self-serving agenda.

In much the same way, fawning behaviour is damaging to groups. Normal follower behaviour involves constant evaluation, giving feedback or rearranging the power structure if someone is leading unskillfully. In healthy groups, there are checks and balances to the power dynamic, limiting the leader’s action space to pro-social behaviours.[5]

Fawning behaviour robs the group of this vital feedback. Instead of challenging problematic directions, fawning people play along. When the entire group does this, you get what is known as “groupthink”, a term coined by sociologist William H. Whyte.

A group stuck in groupthink lacks necessary feedback/critique, with the members all agreeing on how excellent things are going. A group like this is stuck in delusion, disconnected from the real world. Groupthink is the driver of great fuck-ups, including things like US strategic decisions during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Relevant quote:

"No warships anchored in the shallow water of Pearl Harbor could ever be sunk by torpedo bombs launched from enemy aircraft."[6]



Do I know anything new after all this analysis? Maybe?

It’s interesting to connect personal coping strategies with group dysfunction. It clarifies the core problem of arrogance: the ego-centric focus. Having separated arrogance from healthy leadership, I now see that it’s not the leadership part that needs to be done away with. My ability to step up and lead is a gift to be honoured.

In the past, I’ve tried compensating for arrogance by ‘taking less space’ (practising acting with lower status).[7] Being able to act low status is a useful tool, but not something I want to make permanent. I want to find ways to work with arrogance while preserving the gifts I can give in a leadership role.

I want to target the core problem: clinging to a high-power frame when I’m feeling insecure. I have done a shit ton of honesty practice, and know how to ask for help once I catch myself in arrogance. Unfortunately, this sometimes takes some time. I want to reduce resistance to asking for help. I do this by practising asking for help and feedback. One example of this is asking friends to refer clients for philosophical guidance, which has been a great success.

For the ‘mirror image’ problem of people pleasing, a similar strategy might be useful. This strategy would be a mirror image of my arrogance-strategy, and go something like this: Start by practising acting dominant/assertive, expanding the range of status expressions you are comfortable with. Once you can act in high-status ways, challenge yourself to be assertive when the situation calls for it. This is especially relevant when you feel insecure. Groups you are part of will function much better if you set boundaries, express concerns and voice relevant feedback.[8]


Some Concrete Ideas

Coping mechanisms can’t be reasoned away. Once we’ve figured out where we want to go, we need to figure out practical ways to train ourselves to get there. I’ve spent five minutes thinking of things to do. I’m sure you can figure out better exercises, more fit to your life. In that case, allow my list to serve as inspiration. Here’s my list:

  • If you are Arrogant
    • Practice asking for help with things you struggle with. Admit that you’re having a hard time.
    • Ask your friends for opinions about your career, big decisions and similar.
    • Go do something you suck at, in a group setting. Choir singing? Brazilian Jui-jitsu? Get supported by the group and try to find mentorship.
    • Practice asking for support when you feel insecure. Detect insecurity by checking for arrogance. If you start judging the people around you, it might be time to open up and ask for help.
  • If you are a People Pleaser
    • Say no to most requests you get over a week.
      • exceptions in extreme cases (someone dying etc)
    • Write a letter with suggestions for how your boss can improve their leadership.
    • Book a meeting and share the letter contents with your boss.
    • Practice disagreeing with others. Write a comment telling me how out of line I am.
    • Read Radical Honesty
    • Practice speaking up when you feel insecure. I don’t know what your subjective experience is when you go into people-pleasing (self-judgement?), but I think a good way out is to put up boundaries.
  1. ^

    Fawning is a huge problem when it comes to consent and boundaries, and you should know about it. From the outside, it’s hard to know if someone is happily in subspace or whether they are playing along as a coping mechanism. More info: https://www.charliehealth.com/post/is-fawning-a-trauma-response-what-you-need-to-know

  2. ^

    In “The Pragmatist’s Guide To Sexuality”, Simon & Malcolm presents an interesting idea: what if the human tendency to get turned on by dominance derives from an evolutionary contingency where sexual-mating-display instincts got exapted to drive dominance displays?

    This would incentivize dominance displays by connecting them to arousal.

  3. ^

    “Flat hierarchies” sometimes feature a dynamic shifting of the leadership dynamics, adapting to the situation at hand. At other times, there is a hidden power structure, usually featuring antisocial leaders hiding behind a pretence of equality.

    Peter N Limberg

    has written about this in his “Terrible Communities” series.

    Regardless, someone is weaving the narrative.

  4. ^

    I usually keep this in my head, thankfully. The worst consequence is usually me getting disconnected from the group.

  5. ^

    Usually, there’s some level of inertia, where a lack of common knowledge delays power upheavals. Regardless, the self-correction makes the power dynamics eventually consistent with pro-social aims.

  6. ^

    From “Groupthink : psychological studies of policy decisions and fiascoes”

  7. ^

    Being stuck in high status can be lonely, and also limiting.

  8. ^

    It’s a bit funny/meta that it’s the arrogant person telling people pleasers what to do.

New Comment
7 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

Really interesting, very useful to make sense of part of my behaviour and other people’s, but I’m not sure we should assume people just are either people pleasers or arrogant? I see both kinds of behaviour in myself, depending mostly on what I am having difficulty with. (Or is it just that I feel like I’m too arrogant while in fact acting like a people-pleaser?)

I don't see dominance/status as inherent to a person, they are always relative to a group/situation.

They are ways of acting, supported by inherited instincts.

There's always a bigger fish ;)


Interesting post and self-improvement advice!

I want to add to that when you're learning a behavior that is new to you, you want to start out in a low-risk setting. You are probably going to make mistakes. For example, when you first try to act high-status and assertive, you may overdo it and come off as aggressive and rude. So you want to start practicing in a safe setting where mistakes won't cost you a job, e.g. anonymously on the internet or with friends. Or if you do write to your boss, have a friend look over the letter. Then move on to more high stakes situations.

Another caveat is that if you adopted a dysfunctional behavior, it was probably for a reason. There was probably someone in your environment around whom the dysfunctional behavior made complete sense and was the only way to get along with them. They may still be around you. Expect them to blow up. But don't be discouraged, remember most people are not like them.

In the past, I’ve tried compensating for arrogance by ‘taking less space’ (practising acting with lower status).

In case you haven’t already seen it, I found the post Making yourself small (and see also the comments) to be insightful and helpful.

Arrogance and people pleasing have both been quite central in my life, so this post really resonates with me.
But I'm very confident in my understanding of degeneracy, so I want to challenge this thought:

I think of fawning as degenerate submissiveness, and arrogance as degenerate dominance.

I don't think fawning is degenerate unless one:
1: Discard their own individuality, copying traits of the other person
2: Conforms to group-think in general (rather than fawning over select individuals)
3: Makes no selection.

When fawning, one should like the individual for their uniqueness. Like this, there's no destruction of individuality, no tendency towards average, no universal standards that all people are measured towards (slave morality comes to mind!).

I don't think arrogance is degenerate unless:
1: One is arrogant in the sense of bragging, seeking validation from others.
2: One is hostile, rather than just playful. (If you're hostile, you perceive the other person as a threat. If something is a threat to you, how could you be far above them? But those above like to handicap themselves and taunting others, in order to invite a stronger resistance that they may overcome)
3: Your ego is fragile, and not just big. (a strong personality is the opposite of degeneracy. Recognize health by surplus and degeneracy by poverty)

I'll claim that some arrogance is the opposite of degeneracy, to the extent that one rejects outside influences due to high personal standards. High-status people may be arrogant and avoid low-status people (master morality comes to mind). If your open-mindedness leads to a lack of standards, then you're degenerate. This is why slave morality is so dangerous, it subverts values. Two examples which come to mind are open borders and acceptance of deviant sexual behaviour. (These are not inherently bad, but I think they're bad in practice as we can't shoulder the cost. Deviancy also correlates with both inferiority and superiority, but that's a complex topic)
I have zero desire to lead personally, I'd rather be among other outliers. Being a leader is costly - but it's also a virtue. It's helping people below yourself. I'd probably like the idea if I could derive meaning from it (take pride in giving to others as a proof of abundance). I should also add that I'm afraid of being misunderstood, which probably means that I fear the power of numbers (cancel culture and such) despite looking down on individuals.

Have I misunderstood you on about fawning behaviour? I view it different from mere conformity. What comes to mind for me are lonely people who are quick to idolize whoever treats them well. Another example, one which offends me a bit, is when the moderators or leaders of a group give special statuses to cute girls in the group, competing for their attention. It's often done in an immature and unprofessional manner, resulting in the girls becoming spoiled, and in moderators punishing anyone who dares to point out the favoritism.
Finally, I'm better at acting high status than low status, but my social needs aren't being met, and it's exhausting to have other people rely on me all the time. By taking a harmless, cat-like social role, others will let down their guard around me and hold me to low expectations.

I'd love to hear your thoughts! The less you hold back in criticizing my view, the more I benefit.

I think we need to clear up two terms before we can have a coherent dialogue: "fawning" and "degenerate".

I think I used "degenerate" in a non-standard way. I did not intend to convey "causing a deterioration of your moral character", but rather "a hollow/misadjusted/corrupted version of".

I use "fawning" in a technical sense, referring to a trauma response where someone "plays along" in response to stress. This is an instinct targeted at making you appear less threatening, reducing the likelihood of getting disposed of due to retaliation concerns. I did not use it in the sense of "likes someone" (fawn over someone).

Regarding Arrogance, big ego, and master morals:

I am a big fan of:

  • going my own way, instead of conforming out of envy-fear.
  • having a strong "sense of self"
  • knowing what I want and going for it
  • having standards for my own and other people's behaviour
  • taking joy in others celebrating your leadership

I don't see these things as arrogant.

Here are some arrogant things:

  • judging others harsher when you get insecure (pushing down to avoid getting dominated)
  • ignoring my own faults, because I'm not willing to appear weak
  • thinking I'm worthy of status and fame even if I don't provide value
  • pretending that I am more confident/strong than I actually feel, because that feels safer

Arrogance has a "clinginess" to it. It has a pretence to it. It has a presumptuousness to it. Arrogance is what happens when you value "feeling powerful" (relative to others), over actually getting shit done, using power for the things it's useful for, and serving something bigger than yourself (such as the community).

I don't define degeneracy as immorality myself. I'm quite inspired by Nietzsches definition, which is almost the opposite of that.
In short, degeneracy is a lack of healthy instincts. Healthy people love freedom, as restrinctions and rules only hinder them. Degenerate people need these rules and restrictions, for without them, they destroy themselves. Substance abusers, alcoholics, porn addicts, etc. are all examples of this. Sex is not bad as some Christians think, neither is it pure good as some progressives think. The degeneracy is in the doer. Sex can be anything from innocent to sickly indulgent. Children think nothing of nudity because they're pure, perverts think nothing of nudity because it's way insufficient to excite them. Think of it as the horse-shoe theory of innocence and corruption, and the reason that the concept of "balance" is superior to the good/evil worldview. 

I like your definition of "fawning"! I think such playing along happens instinctual (herd instinct), but that many take it too far because of trauma. But normal upbringing/socialization is quite similar to trauma, I think. It's normal to be afraid of talking publicly, but we're not born with this fear. Have you read the unabombers description of oversocialization? It's when socialization is taken further than what's realistic. It causes all sorts of psychological problems, like suppression of emotions, projecting of ones shadow onto others, and a general fear of healthy human nature (healthy people lack restrictions, and degenerate people consider this a danger. E.g. Christians who are afraid of atheists, because they think "if you don't believe in hell, won't you want to hurt other people?" (notice the confession in such thoughts)

I also enjoy "going my own way", but I will admit that it's lonely at times. And I have given up trying to explain my moral compass to others, such a thing is almost impossible. I'm easily misunderstood as evil, unless I act happy-go-lucky. You will only be deemed a bad person if you seem to understand the cause and effect of your actions.

I agree with basically everything you've listed, but I think you're inherently worthy of status, you're just not entitled to it. Even strong self-affirmation is good, even more so if it's based on nothing (as that makes it impossible to take it away from you). I think entitlement is bad in any amounts, no matter how justified. One should consider oneself valid by default, rather than begging others for validation. Also, considering each day an undeserved gift might be sufficient for living a happy life.
Finally, I think serving something bigger than oneself is admirable iff it's voluntary. Excuse the wordiness, I can't compress it further.