Superiority Complex Examples: Sometimes Helping Can Hurt

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "When Helping Hurts" by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are examples of a superiority complex? How do superiority complexes hurt mission trips?

The key to cultivating the right mindset for effective poverty alleviation is to see the poor as equals. They are humans who you want to work with for mutual good, not inferior beings who you need to save from themselves. 

Below, we’ll look at superiority complex examples that Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert explain in their book When Helping Hurts.

Classifying Superiority Complexes

Let’s now look at how the authors identify and classify different superiority complexes to provide a sort of checklist for the process of self-examination. In When Helping Hurts, Corbett and Fikkert identify two main superiority complex examples that we need to repent of to minister effectively to the poor, especially in cross-cultural missions: cultural superiority and paternalism.

1. Cultural Superiority

The authors point out that every culture has a system of values that govern people’s behavior within that culture. A cultural superiority complex consists of failing to respect another culture’s value system when you interact with people of that culture. Whether you disregard the other culture’s values because you consciously view them as inferior and unimportant or you’re just oblivious to the differences, such disregard will cause misunderstandings and hinder relationships. 

Cultural superiority complexes can be a problem any time Christians minister cross-culturally. The authors observe that the effect is greatest on mission trips to countries with very different cultures, but even different ethnic groups or neighborhoods within the same city sometimes have sufficiently different cultures to cause misunderstanding and friction.

Classifying Cultural Values

Corbett and Fikkert identify four key values and the spectrum of perspectives that different cultures take on them. Let’s consider each of them in turn and the ways that a cultural superiority complex can be counterproductive to building relationships between the missionary and the poor of another culture (which is a prerequisite for helping to heal the poor person’s relationships with God, others, self, and creation).

Cultural perspective on power over circumstances: The authors observe that Western cultures tend to postulate that people control their own destiny, but people of some other cultures view the circumstances of life as being largely beyond human control. This can lead a Westerner with a superiority complex to regard others as apathetic and undeserving of assistance.

Cultural perception of authority: The authors note that Western culture tends to value giving all individuals equal social status, while some other cultures value certain hierarchies of social status. A Westerner with a superiority complex may ignore the social hierarchy of another culture, insulting people at the top of the hierarchy and asking others to do things that aren’t culturally acceptable in that context. 

Cultural perception of time: Corbett and Fikkert explain that Western culture is strongly “monochronic,” meaning that Westerners view time as a limited resource. Meanwhile, the authors describe many other cultures as “polychronic,” meaning that they view time as an unlimited resource. A Westerner with a monochronic mindset and a superiority complex may become impatient or even offended when people show up late to meetings, fall behind schedule, and don’t seem to respect their time. 

Cultural perspective on individuality: Corbett and Fikkert point out that Western culture is individualistic, emphasizing the unique value of each person and her contributions to a group or cause. By contrast, collectivist cultures emphasize the value of membership in a group and commitment to that group. A Westerner with a superiority complex may fail to grasp the significance of organizations such as the local church in a collectivist culture or the depth of relationships that people in that culture require for establishing trust.

The authors point out that the Western culture from which most North American missionaries come tends to land at one extreme on most of these issues. Coming from an “extreme” culture exacerbates the effect of a cultural superiority complex when dealing with people from cultures that lie toward the middle or near the opposite end of the spectrum.

2. Paternalism

The second type of superiority complex is paternalism. Paternalism consists of treating other people like children: deciding what’s best for them, providing for their needs, sometimes overruling their decisions for “their own good,” and so forth. 

(Shortform note: Strictly speaking, paternalism is not always a bad thing. There are situations where it’s appropriate to treat people like children, such as when they are children—especially if they’re your children. That said, even when you’re raising children, it’s important not to be excessively paternalistic, so that they have space to develop problem-solving and decision-making skills.)

Corbett and Fikkert observe that when we treat the poor paternalistically because we feel superior to them, this tends to inhibit forming working relationships with them and often leads to relief efforts that do more harm than good.

They define five specific variations of the paternalism superiority complex, which we’ll recount below. To show how each variant can negatively impact poverty alleviation, we’ll consider them each in turn for a hypothetical situation where a church sends a short-term missionary team to build a new house for a local family in an impoverished community where some of the houses are deteriorating to the point of being unlivable. 

1. Resource Paternalism: Giving the poor resources such as food, clothing, or money. In the case of this hypothetical mission, the missionaries bring their own construction materials along or make their own arrangements to purchase them. This not only reinforces the locals’ sense of helplessness by insinuating that they are incapable of providing or selecting the materials themselves, but it also hurts the local economy since now there’s no reason for the family to buy building materials from local suppliers.

2. Labor Paternalism: Doing work on behalf of the poor. In this case, the missionaries do all the work constructing the house. Again, this not only insinuates that the locals are incapable of doing the work, reinforcing their sense of helplessness, but it also deprives them of an opportunity to put their skills to use (if they have them), learn new skills on the job (if they don’t already have them), or stimulate the local economy by hiring a local contractor to do the work (if others in the community have the necessary skills).

3. Managerial Paternalism: Making plans and decisions on behalf of the poor. In this case, the missionary team designs the house or uses a standard floor plan that they brought with them, with little or no input from the family they’re building the house for. Once again, this reinforces the poor family’s impression that they have no control over their situation.

4. Knowledge Paternalism: Failing to adequately solicit input from the poor or assuming you know better than they do. Even if you genuinely have more education or technical expertise than anyone in a group of poor people, they still have a better understanding of their situation than you do. In our example of building a house, this feeds into managerial paternalism. It also may result in poor decisions: The missionary team designs the house to use natural gas heat because it’s efficient and cost-effective, but they don’t realize that the community doesn’t have a natural gas line to hook up to. 

5. Spiritual Paternalism: Assuming a leadership role in church services or other religious functions conducted for the poor. As with knowledge paternalism, it’s true that the typical affluent Western Christian has more academic knowledge about Christianity than the typical poor person. But academic knowledge does not necessarily equate to spiritual maturity. 

In the authors’ experience, poor people often know better how to apply biblical principles to their situation than outsiders do. Moreover, poor people often have stronger faith in God than affluent people do because the poor actually rely on God for things that the wealthy can rely on their own resources for. 

For example, suppose an upper-middle-class American and a poor African both get sick. The American goes to a doctor for treatment and relies on her medical insurance to pay for the incident. If she recovers without any complications, the episode probably has no effect on her faith in God or lack thereof. The African can’t afford to go to a doctor, so he prays that God will heal him. If he recovers, his faith in God is strengthened.

Finally, the authors point out that just as other forms of paternalism can undermine the local economy, spiritual paternalism can undermine the local church. They observe, for example, that when affluent missionaries host a children’s Bible camp in a poor area, local children abandon the local Bible studies that they’ve been attending to go to the camp and then don’t come back after the missionaries leave because the local studies aren’t as entertaining and don’t give out free stuff as missionary program did.

Superiority Complex Examples: Sometimes Helping Can Hurt

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Here's what you'll find in our full When Helping Hurts summary:

  • How many Christian church missions actually do more harm than good
  • A look into the true nature and causes of poverty
  • Suggestions for how to help the poor more effectively

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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