The Neuroscience of Self-Righteousness
The idea for this quote and comment came from a book I’m reading by Brene’ Brown entitled “Atlas of the Heart.” In it, she describes behaviors and emotions as destinations… where we go when we are _________ ,and one of those is “self-righteousness.” Of course, if posts on social media are any indication, this destination seems to be a popular one for many people these days.
What I loved about this particular part of the book, however, is how Dr. Brown looks beneath the vitriol of self-righteousness and uncovers what is truly driving this all-too-common, emotional behavior. In doing so, she also sheds light on what it isn’t. In other words, self-righteousness isn’t about confidence in one’s perspective, because a truly confident person can hear opposing views without needing to criticize them or defend their own.
Those who follow my “Life from the Top of the Mind” philosophy know that this more open, curious mindset actually comes from the upper 80% of the brain, the neocortex, or what I call the “Top of the Mind.” This is where we have access to the best of who we are and are choosing the qualities and characteristics we would teach or recommend to those we love and/or those we lead. Just think of the adjectives we use to describe those we respect…Would it be fair to say that “open-minded, curious, respectful of others, and centered would be among the descriptors? And, by the same token, would it be fair to say that self-righteous, argumentative, stubborn, critical, and closed-minded would not be on the list?
Plus, there is the question of effectiveness. Have you noticed that when people are being self-righteous, it is rare that those who are the target of this way of being rarely respond with understanding or agreement. In fact, they often react with increased defensiveness and resistance.
So, why is this emotion/behavior so popular? If this behavior is so ineffective, why is it so prevalent in today’s society? I believe that the reason so many people find themselves caught up in the intensity of self-righteousness has more to do with a protective reaction driven by a fear of what it would mean to be wrong. Would it mean that they couldn’t trust their own judgment? Or, that they would be ostracized by their tribe, family, or the groups to which they belong? Regardless, we now know that this defensive behavior is driven by the lower 20% of the brain, and, as such, is more of a reaction than a purposefully-chosen response.
Knowing this, if we find ourselves being self-righteous, we can choose to reject this perspective as incongruent with what we would teach or recommend to those whom we love and choose a more purposeful way of being. If we are dealing with others who are being self-righteous, we can see them as coming from the protective, or fear-based part of the brain, and choose either to respond to them from the Top of the Mind, or simply excuse ourselves from the interaction. Regardless, it will now be us versus them who is defining who we are, and, as such, will put us in a more influential position to determine what happens next.
This is what I teach. As a psychologist and speaker, I have the privilege of going around the world teaching individuals and organizations how to access their best (especially in difficult situations) by accessing a specific part of the brain, as well as, how to avoid the stress, frustration, and self-righteousness that can get in the way of our success by avoiding a specific part of the brain. If this is something that you feel would be of benefit to you and/or your organization, I suggest you contact me, because until we can become of aware of what self-righteousness really is (what part of the brain it is coming from and how it affects our success) we will either be feeding our own need to be right, or unwittingly causing others to do the same.
~ All the best, Dr. Bill