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Thread: False modesty... a means of self preservation?

  1. #1
    null Array Jonny's Avatar
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    Sep 2009

    Default False modesty... a means of self preservation?

    I've recently been thinking a bit about the nature of false modesty. When someone who is obviously superior in certain respects refuses to outwardly acknowledge such superiority, it begs the question... why?

    Like most human actions, I am inclined to believe that modesty doesn't have a single common motivation. However, there are probably motivating factors which are common between individuals. I'd like this thread to be a discussion of those factors.

    My thoughts:


    In some instances, modesty can be attributed to a miscommunication; that is, the person who is perceived as being modest is simply using a different metric to assess his/her own abilities. This different metric can be attributed to a different frame of reference or perhaps a different set of standards. As an example, I might acknowledge someone else as being a gifted tennis player (my abilities and knowledge of the sport are limited), but because they play regularly with professionals, they view themselves as below average (when compared to the very best in the sport) and thus disagree with my assessment.

    Conforming to Social Customs

    Rather than respond with a simple "Thank you," it is customary to display some degree of modesty when complimented. Since humans by nature seek to conform, this response has become the norm. However, since there must be some reason other than custom that someone was once modest (the first person to be modest couldn't have been following custom), there must be some exogenous factors at play as well.

    Avoiding Confrontation / Self Preservation / Duality

    There are some people who are superior, exhibit signs that they are aware of that superiority, but outwardly profess the contrary. While many of these people are perhaps motivated by other factors, I cannot help but think that a few of them are modest out of fear.

    I think we can all agree that those individuals who are modest run less risk of being challenged on their abilities. To be overly expressive of a high self-opinion will most assuredly garner more scrutiny, but being modest elicits continued praise from others, and prevents such scrutiny. But... if someone fears being scrutinized, doesn't that mean they don't think they're that great? Not necessarily.

    Many people exhibit a kind of mental duality with regard to self perception. They believe themselves to be far superior to others, but at the same time have a deep seeded fear that they are wrong in this judgment. Not necessarily that they are completely wrong about being superior, but that perhaps they are not quite as superior as they would like to imagine (Think 97th percentile instead of 99.999th percentile). There is a kind of comfort in being obviously superior, while at the same time not knowing the true extent of that superiority (to know is to be limited).


  2. #2
    Superwoman Array Red Herring's Avatar
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    Jun 2010
    5w4 sp/sx


    Not too much to add. These are basically the same points that went through my head when I read the thread title.

    Just one or two additional points: I do have a problem with the concept of superiority when it stands alone without a more precise definition (i.e. superior at math, superior at mastering a foreign language, superior at running a marathon, superior at playing the banjo, etc.). People are rarely superior in every area of live. Let's assume you mean the traditional conventional sense of general intelligence and exclude creativity, athletic skills, craftsmanship and people skills. Even two people with the same number of points on the same IQ test might differ in their strengths and weaknesses: one might be better at completing a raven matrix or discovering logical correlation and the other might excel at spacial thinking or mathematics. And let's not forget fact gatherer. How do you determine which factual knowledge (memorizing the Tokyo phonebook, the complete cast of Dallas, the periodic table, all the kings of England, 20 digits of the number Pi, the capitals of every US federal state, the winners of the 2010 Academy Awards or even bible verses) are superior? Yes, most people will have some cretieria for this, but they are not universal. And most of us specialize, it is fascinating to see how little many philosophers know about science and how little many scientist know about the humanities.

    So you might aknowledge your above average/better-than-the-other-person's (i.e. superior) skills in one area but immediately put them in the big picture context of all the other skills at which you are only average or even below average. You don't consider yourself the hottest thing since sliced bread even though you know your strengths...because you set them off against your weaknesses.
    The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge. Neither love without knowledge, nor knowledge without love can produce a good life. - Bertrand Russell
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  3. #3
    null Array Jonny's Avatar
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    Sep 2009


    True, superiority is dependent upon the traits in question. Also, your point about someone reflecting upon him/herself as a whole is interesting. We all know the best and the worst of ourselves, while often times being denied knowledge of the worst in others. This might lead some to conclude that they are average or below average overall when comparing themselves (and all the negative aspects of themselves) to others.

  4. #4
    Senior Member Array
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    Aug 2010


    Miscommunication: Not what I would view as a miscommunication, more different metrics for assessment. A matter of subjective judgment.

    Conforming to Social and Religious Custom: To add to your assessment, people play modesty games where by being modest, they draw more compliments. This can go on numbingly, reliant on individual.

    Self pres: Modesty was once explained to me from a biological standpoint, in that it manifests within the animal kingdom. Consider gorillas. Many troop members won't meet the reigning silverback's eyes and use humble body language, in order not to challenge his dominance. What's interesting is that the reigning silverback isn't in a position of dominance due solely to his strength. It's also his ability to gain alliances within the troop and most importantly, the ability to recall the best food sources within each season, in order for the troop to survive or thrive.

  5. #5
    Uniqueorn Array William K's Avatar
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    Aug 2009


    Something I read recently

    “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” by Marianne Williamson from A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles
    4w5, Fi>Ne>Ti>Si>Ni>Fe>Te>Se, sp > so > sx

    appreciates being appreciated, conflicted over conflicts, afraid of being afraid, bad at being bad, predictably unpredictable, consistently inconsistent, remarkably unremarkable...

    I may not agree with what you are feeling, but I will defend to death your right to have a good cry over it

    The whole problem with the world is that fools & fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts. ~ Bertrand Russell

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