Hubris is a trait that involves excessive pride, confidence, and self-importance. Accordingly, hubristic individuals tend to overestimate things such as their abilities, knowledge, importance, and likelihood of success.
For example, a hubristic person might believe that they’re never wrong, that they’re guaranteed to succeed in all their ventures, or that they deserve to be above the law.
Hubris is a problematic trait that can lead to serious, negative consequences for hubristic individuals and for those around them, so it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about hubris, and see how you can identify it and deal with it effectively.
Examples of hubris
Though there are examples of hubristic individuals in every area of life, this phenomenon is most commonly associated with those who hold a position of power. For example, hubris is often exhibited by CEOs and other executives, by politicians, and by judges and attorneys.
In all these cases, hubris occurs when a person displays excessive levels of pride, confidence, or self-importance in various ways, such as by wildly overestimating their abilities, or by refusing to believe that they can ever make a mistake.
In the sub-sections below, we will see more examples of hubris, from history, literature, and Greek mythology. These examples aren’t crucial to your understanding of what hubris is or how to handle it, but can be interesting to those who want to learn more about the topic.
Note that in some cases, these examples deal with hubris not in the more modern psychological sense, where it’s viewed primarily as a personality trait, but in the older literary sense, particularly in the case of Greek mythology, where hubris is often seen as an excessively prideful act that leads to a tragic downfall.
Example of hubris from history
A notable historical example of hubris appears in the case of Napoleon, the French military leader who invaded Russia in 1812. The invasion ended with the retreat of Napoleon’s army, after his troops suffered greatly from the harsh Russian winter and from Russia’s scorched-earth tactics and guerrilla warfare. His hubris is described in the following quote:
“The events which were acted out on the plains of Russia during the ensuing months are the stuff of a Greek tragedy. The enterprise began brilliantly, indeed too brilliantly; and when the good omens became bad ones Napoleon, supreme egoist that he was, ignored their significance until he and his host were completely and irrevocably committed to an undertaking that was doomed. Never did the gods punish hubris more severely.”
— From “The Russian Campaign, 1812” (by M. de Fezensac, 2009)
Examples of hubris in literature
The following are examples from literature, where the actions of characters can be interpreted as hubris:
- In the play Doctor Faustus (by Christopher Marlowe), doctor Faustus displays hubris both when he strikes a deal with the Devil, which will grant him power but damn him to hell, and when he then ignores his opportunities to repent until it’s too late.
- In the novel Frankenstein (by Mary Shelley), scientist Victor Frankenstein displays hubris when creating life in the form of his monster.
- In the epic poem Paradise Lost (by John Milton), the character of Satan displays hubris when he attempts to rebel against God’s rule in heaven, and when he eventually declares that it’s “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”
Note that the concept of hubris is also reflected in modern idioms such as “pride comes before a fall” (which is based on “pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall“, from the Book of Proverbs, 16:18).
Examples of hubris in Greek mythology and history
The concept of hubris is strongly associated with Greek history and mythology, where it originated. The following are some of the most notable examples of hubris in these domains:
- In the epic poem The Odyssey (by Homer), hubris is displayed by the suitors of Penelope (Odysseus’s wife), who court her during Odysseus’s long absence, and who behave rudely in her house, an act for which they are later killed for by Odysseus. However, Odysseus himself also displayed hubris, when, after blinding a cyclops and escaping his cave, Odysseus boastfully tells the cyclops his name. As a result, the cyclops’s father, who is Poseidon (the Greek god of the sea), avenges his son by punishing Odysseus.
- In the myth of Daedalus, the skillful craftsmen Daedalus and his son Icarus attempt to escape from the labyrinth that Daedalus built for King Minos of Crete, after the king imprisoned them to prevent Daedalus from sharing his knowledge of the labyrinth. The pair escapes by gathering feathers and gluing them into wings, using wax. However, despite Daedalus’s warnings, Icarus displays hubris and flies too high, causing the sun to melt his wings, at which point he falls to the sea and drowns.
- In the play Ajax (by Sophocles), the great warrior Ajax displays hubris twice; first when he boasts that he does not need the help of the gods in battle, and then when he rejects the goddess Athena’s offer of aid. As punishment for this, Athena deludes him into killing the animals that were captured as spoils of war by the Greek army. When Ajax realizes what he has done, he is filled with shame, and eventually kills himself.
- In the play Oedipus Rex (by Sophocles), Oedipus leaves his home in Corinth, in an attempt to avoid the prophecy given to him by the Oracle of Delphi, that he will one day murder his father and marry his mother. During his travels, he kills a man that he encounters, who eventually turns out to be his real father that he never knew (Laius). Later, Oedipus frees the city of Thebes from the Sphinx, and as a reward for this, he is granted Kingship of Thebes, and marries the queen (Jocasta), who was his real mother all along. Several acts can be construed as hubris in the case of Oedipus, including, most notably, his attempt to escape his fate, his excessive pride which prevents him from seeing the truth, and his mistreatment of the blind prophet Tiresias. When the truth comes out, Oedipus’s mother kills herself, and Oedipus blinds himself in despair.
In addition, an important place where hubris was mentioned in Greek history is the judicial speech “Against Meidias” (circa 350 BCE). In the speech, stateman and orator Demosthenes accuses Meidias, a wealthy Athenian, of hubris, after Meidias walked up to him while Demosthenes served as a choregus at the Great Dionysia, and struck him in the face. This came after an earlier case, where Meidias visited his house, and used abusive language against him and his family.
The concept of hubris played a crucial role in the speech, which represents one of the most notable uses of the word in Greek history. Specifically, an analysis of the topic shows that:
“The single most important recurrence in the speech is the root of hybris [the original spelling of ‘hubris’] in its various grammatical forms and parts of speech. In fact hybris, to use the noun for every manifestation of the root, occurs in the speech 131 times, as opposed to 274 times in the entire Demosthenic corpus and 170 times in all the other Greek orators.”
Note: in Greek mythology, the punishment for hubris often came from Nemesis, the goddess of retribution, and the term “nemesis” is sometimes used to refer to the punishment or destruction that one experiences as a result of their hubris.
The psychology of hubris
The dangers of hubris
The main danger of hubris is that it clouds people’s judgment in various ways, which causes the hubristic individual to make decisions that are bad for them and for others who are affected by those decisions.
For example, since hubris involves overconfidence in one’s knowledge and abilities, it can lead people to overestimate their ability to achieve positive outcomes in various domains, which causes them to take unnecessary risks. Similarly, hubris can lead people to overestimate the validity and reliability of their intuitions, and consequently to over-rely on those intuitions while avoiding a proper reasoning process, especially if it involves discussions with others.
Furthermore, hubris is also associated with a range of additional issues, such as recklessness and impulsiveness, loss of contact with reality, unwillingness to consider undesirable outcomes, refusal to feel accountable to others, difficulties in facing changing realities, reliance on a simplistic formula for success, and impaired moral awareness, all of which can lead to adverse outcomes.
A notable domain where the dangers of hubris were investigated is the corporate landscape, where this phenomenon has been shown to negatively influence the decision-making process of executives in various ways. For example, research on the topic has shown that:
- CEO hubris is associated with increased unethical behavior at firms that they lead, in the form of increased earnings manipulations.
- CEO hubris is associated with less socially responsible activities and more socially irresponsible ones by the firm that they lead.
- CEO hubris is associated with overpaying for new assets during corporate acquisitions, which leads to increased losses for the shareholders of the acquiring company.
- In the context of entrepreneurship, hubris can cause founders to misallocate resources, which increases the likelihood that their ventures will fail.
Moreover, hubris can also have a detrimental effect from a social perspective, since hubris often leads to behaviors that cause others to form a negative opinion of the hubristic individual. For example, hubristic individuals often cause members of their group to dislike them, when they display hubris by making explicit claims regarding their self-superiority, by stating that they are better than others or that their future will be better, or when they overestimate their status within the group.
However, note that there is some variability with regard to the negative outcomes that hubris can lead to. For example, when it comes to the social hubris penalty that people incur when they engage in hubristic behavior, research suggests that factors such as the status of the hubristic individual within their social group can affect how their behavior is perceived by others, so that low-status members being punished for hubristic behavior, but high-status members are not.
Furthermore, as we will see in the next section, there are also situations where hubris can be beneficial in various ways.
The benefits of hubris
Though hubris has many dangers, it also has some benefits. For example, hubris is associated with higher self-esteem, which can lead to benefits such as an increased willingness to speak up in groups and criticize a group’s approach. Furthermore, hubris is also associated with increased confidence, which can lead to increased resilience, in terms of a better ability to persevere in the face of challenges.
Moreover, certain aspects of hubris can be beneficial in specific situations. For example, overconfidence, can sometimes help individuals by increasing their ambition, morale, and resolve. Similarly, CEO hubris can sometimes lead to increased innovation within their firm, often as a result of their tendency to underestimate and understate the probability of failure. Furthermore, in some cases, the benefits of hubris can lead to a positive self-fulfilling prophecy, such as in cases where one’s overconfidence in their ability ends up leading to their success.
However, many of these potential benefits of hubris can quickly turn to issues, and it’s often difficult to determine whether one’s hubris is beneficial or not, especially when viewed from the hubristic individual’s perspective. For example, CEO hubris is associated with increased risk-taking by firms that they lead, which can sometimes lead to positive outcomes, but which can also lead to highly negative outcomes, especially since this increased risk-taking is based on a flawed decision-making process, that is biased by the decision maker’s hubris.
What leads people to develop hubris
There is no single cause of hubris, but in general, behaviors that inflate a person’s pride, confidence, or self-importance are likely to lead to it, often through a gradual process. For example, in some cases, a series of major consecutive successes can prompt hubris, as can being exempt from rules or receiving constant praise and no criticism.
In addition, certain factors can make a person more predisposed to developing hubris. This includes, for example, their cultural environment, or the presence of personality traits such as narcissism, which involves excessive interest or admiration of oneself.
Finally, note that although hubris is usually discussed as a personal trait, it can also occur on a large scale, among groups such as sports teams, companies, or countries, whose members develop a collective hubris with regard to their group identity, in a process similar to the development of individual hubris.
Hubris in different types of relations
Hubris can be said to affect people when it comes to three types of relations:
- Their relation with the self. When it comes to a person’s relation with themself, hubris can cause them to develop overconfidence and pride, which can lead them to overestimate their abilities, knowledge, and likelihood of success.
- Their relation with others. When it comes to a person’s relation with others, hubris can cause them to consider themself as being above others, which can lead to things such as refusal to listen to advice and willingness to use fear, intimidation, and violence to achieve goals.
- Their relation with the world. When it comes to a person’s relation with the world, hubris can cause them to consider themself to be above the law or above the gods, which can lead them to believe that they don’t have to abide by laws, and cause them to develop contempt toward authority.
Note: when discussing the effects of hubris, the term ‘the hubris hypothesis’ is sometimes used. However, it’s used in different senses in different studies, and in some cases, the domain in which it’s used is appended to it (e.g. “the hubris hypothesis of corporate takeovers”).
Dealing with hubris
How to identify hubris
The first step to successfully dealing with hubris is to identify it, both when it comes to yourself and when it comes to others.
The simplest way to identify hubris is to use an intuitive approach, where you focus on its main symptoms—excessive pride, confidence, and self-importance—and ask yourself whether they’re being displayed by the person in question.
If necessary, you can also use a more methodical approach, and look not only for the main symptoms of hubris, but also for other behaviors that are frequently associated with it. To do this, you can look for the signs that have been proposed as a way to diagnose the hubris syndrome, which is an acquired condition that occurs when someone displays extreme hubristic behavior, usually while in a position of leadership and power. These signs are the following:
- A narcissistic propensity to see their world primarily as an arena in which to exercise power and seek glory.
- A predisposition to take actions which seem likely to cast the individual in a good light—i.e. in order to enhance image.
- A disproportionate concern with image and presentation.
- A messianic manner of talking about current activities and a tendency to exaltation.
- An identification with the nation, or organization to the extent that the individual regards his/her outlook and interests as identical.
- A tendency to speak in the third person or use the royal ‘we’.
- Excessive confidence in the individual’s own judgement and contempt for the advice or criticism of others.
- Exaggerated self-belief, bordering on a sense of omnipotence, in what they personally can achieve.
- A belief that rather than being accountable to the mundane court of colleagues or public opinion, the court to which they answer is: History or God.
- An unshakable belief that in that court they will be vindicated.
- Loss of contact with reality; often associated with progressive isolation.
- Restlessness, recklessness and impulsiveness.
- A tendency to allow their ‘broad vision’, about the moral rectitude of a proposed course, to obviate the need to consider practicality, cost or outcomes.
- Hubristic incompetence, where things go wrong because too much self-confidence has led the leader not to worry about the nuts and bolts of policy.
In addition, there are other ways to identify hubris. For example, a study on linguistic markers of CEO hubris found that hubris is associated with certain linguistic patterns, such as increased use of vocabulary relating to money and power, increased use of terms relating to emotions together with a decreased use of terms relating to positive emotions, and increased certainty in tone. However, such signs are relatively difficult to analyze properly in most cases, and are therefore useful only in a few niche cases.
Finally, it may be necessary to ask for feedback from people whom you trust, and to make sure that they feel comfortable giving you their honest opinion, even if it might be unpleasant for you to hear. This is needed primarily in cases where you have a strong emotional involvement in the situation, which could bias your assessment, such as when assessing yourself or someone whom you admire.
Overall, to determine whether you or someone else is displaying hubris, you should look for the main symptoms of hubris—excessive pride, confidence, and self-importance—and potentially also for other behaviors that are associated with it, such as recklessness, impulsiveness, and a disproportionate concern with one’s image. Furthermore, if necessary, and particularly if you’re strongly emotionally involved in the situation, you should also seek feedback from others, and make sure that they feel comfortable giving you their honest opinion.
How to avoid developing hubris
Because hubris can be detrimental in various ways, you generally want to avoid developing it yourself. There are some things that you can do to achieve this:
- Actively consider the dangers of hubris. Specifically, look back at similar cases in the past where hubristic behavior caused you or others to experience negative outcomes. Furthermore, consider the specific ways in which hubris can negatively affect you when it comes to your future.
- Reflect on your performance in an honest manner. Acknowledge past failures, and take responsibility for things that were your own fault. In addition, when examining your past successes, make sure to acknowledge the contribution of external factors and other people.
- Avoid hubristic thoughts, statements, and actions. When you notice yourself about to display hubris in any way, stop, and modify your behavior. If you notice that you’ve recently displayed hubris, acknowledge it, and apologize to others if necessary.
- Don’t take yourself too seriously. Be willing to make mistakes, and to appear less than perfect. Let others laugh at you when it’s appropriate and in good humor.
- Surround yourself with people that help ground you in reality. For example, try to have people in your life who are willing to tell you the truth, even if it may be unpleasant, and who won’t just agree with everything that you say. Where possible, try to connect with people who can hold you accountable if you do something wrong.
- Listen to others. Listen when other people give you advice, feedback, or criticism, and actively solicit it when necessary. While listening, make sure to actually pay attention and care about what they have to say, and avoid being dismissive.
- Care about others. When deciding what to do, make sure to think not only about how your actions will affect you or the greater cause that you feel that you serve, but also about how it will affect other individuals.
Finally, in cases where your hubris might involve some cognitive bias, try using relevant debiasing techniques to address that bias. For example, if you suffer from the false consensus effect, which is a cognitive bias that that causes people to overestimate the degree to which their beliefs, values, characteristics, and behaviors are shared by others, then you can use relevant self-distancing techniques in order to help yourself assess the situation in a more rational manner. This can, for instance, involve asking yourself “what makes you think that other people agree with your opinion?” instead of “what makes me think that other people agree with my opinion?”.
Overall, to avoid developing hubris, you can use various techniques, including actively considering the dangers of hubris, reflecting on your performance in an honest manner, and surrounding yourself with people who help ground you in reality; you can also use relevant debiasing techniques where necessary, to reduce cognitive biases associated with hubris.
How to deal with someone else’s hubris
When it comes to dealing with someone else’s hubris, your preferred course of action depends on whether you simply want to be able to predict and react to that person’s hubris, or whether you want to actively reduce it.
If your goal is to simply predict to predict and react to someone’s hubris, you can use your understanding of this phenomenon to understand how they’re likely to act, and to identify an optimal reaction. For example, if you’re an investor, and an entrepreneur who’s seeking an investment displays hubristic overconfidence in their startup, you can anticipate that they’ll have issues such as underestimating the likelihood of failure and refusing to listen to advice, and make an investment decision based on that.
On the other hand, if your goal is to reduce someone’s hubris, you can use similar techniques as you would use to reduce hubris in yourself. For example, this can entail pointing out past issues with the hubristic individual’s behavior, in order to help them see that they might fail, or to remind them how their hubris has caused them problems in their past.
However, note that the way in which you should use such techniques depends on how the hubristic individual feels about you and about their hubris. For example, you will generally use a different approach when it comes to dealing with the hubris of someone who’s aware of this flaw and wants help, compared to the approach that you would use when it comes to dealing with the hubris of someone who refuses to acknowledge their problem.
Finally, there are some things that you can use to reduce the impact of people’s hubris, even if you can’t reduce their hubris directly. For example, research shows that when a firm depends on stakeholders for resources, CEO hubris has a weaker effect on socially responsible and irresponsible behavior. Conversely, some situations can exacerbate the negative influence of hubris, such as a lack of sufficient oversight over the CEO from a firm’s board of directors.
Overall, when it comes to dealing with someone else’s hubris, you can either use your understanding of this phenomenon to predict their behavior and react to it, or you can use it to reduce their hubris. There are various techniques that you can use to reduce someone’s hubris, such as drawing their attention to cases in the past where their hubris led them to experience issues, and the way you should implement them depends on the nature of the hubristic individual and on their relationship with you.
Personality traits associated with hubris
Hubris is sometimes viewed as part of the “dark side” of leadership traits, together with the following traits:
- Narcissism, which is a trait characterized by excessive interest and admiration of oneself, together with entitlement, arrogance, hostility, self-absorption, and excessive levels of self-love.
- Machiavellianism, which a trait characterized by being cunning, manipulative, and willing to use any means necessary in order to achieve your goals.
- Social dominance, which is a trait characterized by a preference for clear social hierarchy and for having a dominant role in it, and which involves behaviors such as controlling conversations and putting pressure on others, together with a strong belief that some groups of people are inferior to others and that it’s necessary to use force and step on others in order to get ahead.
In addition, hubris is sometimes used synonymously with arrogance, which is a trait that involves having an exaggerated sense of one’s abilities or importance, especially in comparison to others. However, the two terms generally have slightly different meanings and connotations, with arrogance revolving more around an unpleasant approach toward others, and hubris revolving more around extremely misguided views toward oneself.
Finally, there are other personality traits that are often mentioned in relation to hubris, including, most notably, insolence, lack of humility, lack of reverence, and excessive ambition.
Hubristic vs. authentic pride
- Authentic pride, which is viewed as positive and desirable, and which is characterized by high self-esteem (both implicit and explicit) and high self-confidence, together with conscientiousness, emotional stability, and agreeableness.
- Hubristic pride, which is viewed as negative and undesirable, and which is characterized by low implicit self-esteem, together with arrogance, egotism, aggression, shame, and disagreeableness.
Note: implicit self-esteem refers to a person’s unconscious evaluation of themself, in contrast with explicit self-esteem, which refers to a person’s conscious evaluation of themself.
The history of hubris
When the term ‘hubris’ originated in ancient Greece, it was generally used with different connotations than in modern times.
In ancient Greece, for example, hubris was associated with various types of offenses, and was punishable in some places, such as Athens. For instance, in some cases, hubris was connected with excessive eating or drinking, as well as other kinds of indulgence. In other cases, hubris was committed when a person harmed someone else by using violence, by taking something from them, or by mocking them and acting in a rude manner. Furthermore, animals were also sometimes accused of hubris, such as when they displayed “an aggressive spirit as well as the noise that goes with it”.
“…hubris is a form of slight. Hubris consists in doing or saying things that cause shame to the victim, not in order that anything may happen to you, nor because anything has happened to you, but merely for your own gratification.
Hubris is not the requital of past injuries; this is revenge. As for the pleasure in hubris, its cause is this: men think that by ill-treating others they make their own superiority the greater. And hence young men, and rich men, are given to hubris; they think that their insolence adds to their superiority. Again, under hubris falls disrespect, and to show disrespect is to slight…”
— From “Rhetoric” (Book II, Part 2) by Aristotle (4th century BCE)(the Lane Cooper translation). Aristotle is discussing the third of three ways of slighting someone, with the first two being contempt and spite. Note that hubris is also translated in this context as ‘insolence’.
Similarly, a more modern view of ancient hubris suggests that it involves “having energy or power and misusing it self-indulgently”, and characterizes it as follows:
- It is always viewed negatively.
- It is always voluntary.
- It doesn’t always involve a victim, though it often does, and it’s more serious when it does.
- It’s not always religious in nature, though the gods are often those who were expected to punish it.
- The idea that hubris revolves around the intentional commitment of acts meant to dishonor a victim.
- The idea that hubris revolves around overconfidence that causes a person to fail to recognize their limitations and the precariousness of their condition.
- The idea that hubris revolves around placing yourself first, while losing sight of your status and engaging in self-aggrandizement, in a way that involves an incursion into other people’s honor.
However, under all these definitions, the underlying concept of hubris remains relatively similar, and these distinctions aren’t crucial from a practical perspective. As such, the present article focuses on the commonly accepted, modern meaning of the term.
There are several notable terms that are associated with the concept of hubris.
First, there are the terms timē, which refers to the concept of ‘honor’, and aidōs, which refers to the concept of ‘shame’. Some historians argue that, in some situations, hubris can be viewed as a zero-sum transaction where timē is transferred from the victim to the perpetrator, though this view has been criticized.
Another important term is hamartia, which is central to Greek tragedies, and which is often mentioned in conjunction with the concept of hubris. The exact meaning of this term, which is rooted in words meaning, among other things, “to miss the mark”, “to err”, and “to sin”, has been heavily debated throughout history. Common interpretations of it include ignorance of the facts, especially as it pertains to the particulars of one’s actions, an error in judgment, or a moral defect, and it can be seen either as a general disposition or as a specific act. Furthermore, according to some views, this term can have different meanings in different situations, and overall, it can be seen as a tragic flaw, in the form of a mistake or character fault, that leads to a disastrous chain of events for someone.
Discussions of hamartia revolve primarily around the following description of it by Aristotle:
“A perfect tragedy should, as we have seen, be arranged not on the simple but on the complex plan. It should, moreover, imitate actions which excite pity and fear, this being the distinctive mark of tragic imitation.
It follows plainly, in the first place, that the change, of fortune presented must not be the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity: for this moves neither pity nor fear; it merely shocks us. Nor, again, that of a bad man passing from adversity to prosperity: for nothing can be more alien to the spirit of Tragedy; it possesses no single tragic quality; it neither satisfies the moral sense nor calls forth pity or fear. Nor, again, should the downfall of the utter villain be exhibited.
A plot of this kind would, doubtless, satisfy the moral sense, but it would inspire neither pity nor fear; for pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves. Such an event, therefore, will be neither pitiful nor terrible.
There remains, then, the character between these two extremes,—that of a man who is not eminently good and just,-yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous,—a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes, or other illustrious men of such families.”
— From “Poetics” (Book XIII) by Aristotle (4th century BCE)
Note: hubris was also used as the root of similar concepts outside of the Greek language, such as the Roman concept of superbia, which is a behavior marked by insolence and arrogance.
Summary and conclusions
- Hubris is a trait that involves excessive pride, confidence, and self-importance.
- Common signs of hubris include recklessness, a lack of willingness to consider undesirable outcomes, excessive confidence in one’s judgment, the belief that one is not accountable to anyone, contempt for the opinions of others, and a disproportionate concern with one’s image.
- Hubris can lead to a variety of issues, including underestimating risks, refusing to listen to advice, growing out of touch with reality, and eliciting negative reactions from others.
- To avoid developing hubris, you can use various techniques, including actively considering the dangers of hubris, reflecting on your performance in an honest manner, and surrounding yourself with people who help ground you in reality; you can also use relevant debiasing techniques where necessary, to reduce cognitive biases associated with hubris.
- To deal with someone else’s hubris, you can either use your understanding of this phenomenon to predict their actions and react accordingly, or you can actively try to reduce their hubris, using a similar approach that you would when reducing it in yourself, with some necessary modifications.