The God Complex

The pressure of a college math exam manifests (at least, for me) in sweaty palms, a racing heartbeat, tunnel vision—no matter how many hours I’ve studied, no matter how well I think I know the material, when I see the ten pages of five problems (my grade in the class hinging on my ability to solve them in a little over one hundred minutes) I have to fight down the panic rising from my chest.

I’m convinced that one of the biggest secrets to doing well on tests like these (and in other high pressure scenarios—for example, job interviews, speeches, etc.) is the ability to act like—or know that—the task at hand is a piece of cake. This confidence bordering on arrogance allows the best students to plunge headlong into a math test where we all know the average will be a straight up 30% allows them to attack the problems, despite the fact that they (as well as the rest of the class) will fail to answer most of them correctly.

I’ve done the best on tests where I was able to channel this confidence into steadying my hand and clearing my head. I made fewer mistakes, didn’t second-guess myself into the wrong answer. Convincing myself that I was going to do well was half the battle in actually doing well—and the other half was the hard work I had spent preparing myself beforehand.

It’s a funny thing, this confidence-arrogance. This fall, when I interviewed for a glitzy finance internship despite the fact that I hardly knew what a bond was, I mercilessly quashed my more natural self-doubt and strode into the interview with as much self-assuredness as I could muster. Instead of trying to balance humility and confidence, I threw caution to the winds and, at least to my ears, sounded like an arrogant prick. My overcompensation was rewarded—evidently, what I thought was arrogance was to my interviewers a nice healthy dose of confidence.

It wasn’t until I was describing this strange phenomenon to my dad, walking around the lake near our house in the muggy summer heat, that he finally put a name to this phenomenon: a God Complex.

Having a God Complex isn’t a great thing. Here’s what Urban Dictionary says: “A psychosis based in uncontrolled narcissism, inflated arrogance and a perceived need to subjugate and/or ridicule other individuals deemed to be inferior or unworthy.” People with God Complexes are said to be psychopaths.

But in high pressure scenarios, particularly if it’s general knowledge that the outcome will be bad for most people, the God Complex is an indispensable asset—at least, in a milder form.

At this point, it’s difficult not to gender the issue. I first observed the usefulness of the Mild God Complex in a setting that is inherently gender biased—the math major is heavily skewed towards males, as are most STEM majors at universities. I’ve walked into math society meetings and math prize exams—rooms actually filled with major students—where I am one of only two or three women. I can’t help but think that this Mild God Complex, this confidence-arrogance—is a trait that, like having a deeper voice or bigger physiques, gives men in general the edge in high-pressure scenarios like math exams or finance interviews.

Statements like this warrant more thorough research, but it seems that in general women are more likely to be the ones who doubt their own abilities, or temper their confidence with self-doubt. I know that at least for me, striving towards having a Mild God Complex has helped me through scenarios where my own lack of confidence would have been detrimental.

There is always the question about how much is too much, but what I’ve noticed is that I’ve still got a long way to go before I have to worry about being too arrogant—my brain is so hardwired towards self-deprecation that it takes all the God Complex I can muster to let go of that doubt.

Like most things, a work in progress.