The ancient Greeks thought that overly arrogant and haughty people were attacked by hýbris. In fact, the goddess Hybris personified insolence and lack of restraint. Hybris was believed to spend much of her time among mortals, so it was not uncommon for her to “infect” them with her bad manners.
The Greeks used the word hýbris to refer to excess, pride and arrogance, but not those that are born from an irrational and unbalanced impulse, but rather a conscious attempt to transgress the limits imposed by society and the gods. Therefore, it implied a contempt for space and the rights of others.
In ancient Greece, this concept was closely linked to the Moirae, the three mythological beings who threaded, measured and cut the thread of life. In practice, the person affected by Hybris thought that he was entitled to more thread than he had been assigned for believing himself superior and rebelled against his own destiny.
For that reason, the Greeks believed that Hybris primarily attacked kings, emperors, all kinds of rulers, politicians, soldiers, and rich merchants. Currently, Greek mythology has entered Psychology through the Hubris Syndrome.
What is the Hubris Syndrome?
In 2008, the British neurologist David Owen, who was also a former chancellor and member of the House of Lords, published a book in which he referred to the psychological profile and behavior of some politicians, coining the term “hubris syndrome”. He used it to describe those who believed they were destined for great deeds, had a tendency toward grandiosity and omnipotence, and were unable to listen to others, impervious to criticism.
Therefore, he considered that hubris syndrome is an acquired psychiatric disorder that affects people who exercise power in any of its forms. This imbalance robs them of empathy and distances them from reality, leaving in its place pride and arrogance. It would therefore be one of the multiple effects of power on people.
The 14 symptoms of the Hubris Syndrome
David Owen himself and the psychiatrist Jonathan Davidson collected the main symptoms of hubris syndrome observed in people who held power, some of which are common to antisocial, histrionic and narcissistic personality disorders:
1. Narcissistic tendency to see the world as if it were a mere stage where to exercise power, demonstrate their abilities and seek personal glory.
2. Exaggerated self-confidence bordering on a feeling of omnipotence. These people believe that they know and can do anything, they feel extremely special and demand favored treatment.
3. Excessive confidence in their own judgment and contempt for the opinions, ideas and criteria of others, which are never up to their standards. They refuse to dialogue because the only valid points of view are their own and they tend to surround themselves with people who do not dare to contradict them.
4. Carry out actions to glorify themselves and extol or improve their image, often falling into grandiloquence.
5. Exaggerated concern about the image they project to others, so that they tend to fall into eccentricity in their desire to show that they are unique and special.
6. Speak about current affairs in a messianic and exalted way, turning any small achievement into irrefutable proof of their greatness. In fact, they are usually people who gesticulate a lot and raise their voices to show their power.
7. Excessive identification with the country, the state and/or the organization, so that they are not “part of it” but “are it”. They even come to believe that the nation or the institutions themselves are at their service, often surpassing the functions of the position they hold because they believe they are irreplaceable.
8. Tendency to restlessness, impulsiveness and recklessness that is continuously manifested in their behavior, so that they suffer frequent fits of anger or react by becoming defensive when they feel their ego is threatened.
9. Talking about themselves in the third person and use the royal form of “we”, resorting to elaborate words and phrases in their speech that make them seem more educated and intelligent.
10. Absolute conviction that their proposals are fair and appropriate, ignoring their costs. They often brag about their open-mindedness, but ignore the details and fine print while justifying their actions by the goal they pursue, which will always be correct.
11. Believing that they are not accountable to other people or to society, but only to higher courts, such as History or God, so they do not pay attention to criticism or warnings from others.
12. Certainty that this “court” will acquit them because it will understand their superior motives, which ordinary mortals cannot understand or share.
13. Loss of contact with reality as they gradually isolate themselves from their environment. These people begin to live in the world they have built in their minds, validated by those around them who do not dare to contradict them.
14. Hubristic incompetence due to excessive self-confidence, lack of attention to detail, and disconnection from the world. By overestimating their abilities, closing themselves off to other people’s opinions and acting impulsively, these people can make very reckless and dangerous decisions, both for themselves and for others.
Owen and Davidson pointed out that to be diagnosed with hubris syndrome, a person must have at least three of the 14 listed symptoms.
However, the truth is that the hubrys syndrome does not only concern politicians, but can affect anyone who has power in any field of human activity, from finances to sports, religion, education or even medicine.
Obviously, the longer that person holds power and the greater the authority they exercise, the more likely it is that they will develop this disorder marked by arrogance. It has also been seen that narcissistic traits increase the chances of developing the hubris syndrome.
Is it reversible?
Owen and Davidson believe that hubris syndrome is a reversible disorder that can subside when the person loses or relinquishes power, although it is not always easy to come back to reality. Instead, for the ancient Greeks this disorder also had two possible epilogues.
In some cases, the person can become aware of his state and correct his behavior and attitude, embarking on a path of transformational learning that allows him to find his value and recognize the value of his peers. In those cases, the person develops humility, empathy and respect for the others.
The other possibility is that Nemesis, the goddess of justice, balance and measure in Greek mythology, intervenes. Nemesis would be in charge of punishing acts of arrogance and returning the arrogant person to the limits that he had crossed, thus restoring the natural balance. In practice, this person would suffer “reality shocks” that force him to put his feet on the ground again, a kind of shock therapy.
Carvajal, C. (2014) Síndrome de Hibris: descripción y tratamiento. Rev. Méd. Chile; 142(2): DOI: 10.4067.
González-García, J. (2019) Síndrome de Hubris en neurocirugía. Revista de Neurología; 68: 346-353.
Owen, D. & Davidson, J. (2009) Hubris syndrome: An acquired personality disorder? A study of US Presidents and UK Prime Ministers over the last 100 years. Brain; 132(5): 1396–1406.