On Judging Role Models

Comparisons and Hierarchies

We humans compare ourselves to others as often as we speak. Like a stubborn stain of wine on the lips of an enthusiastic aristocrat, comparisons always wander into our thoughts sooner or later, and any attempt to expunge comparisons from our cognitions is entirely futile. To compare is to be human, to drink wine is to be wealthy.

And as much as comparison, to place things into hierarchies is also human nature. We put into hierarchies things like cars, houses, and jobs; but we also put into hierarchies things like intelligence, physical appearance, kindness, and many other human traits. Which leaves us with a more complete picture for our topic.

When we compare ourselves to others, we do so in very specific ways. A young boy compares himself to his elder brother, so as to ensure he becomes as admirable as he. A young lady compares herself to her mother, so as to ensure she becomes as responsible as she. Those are not just general comparisons, but are instead rooted in specific domains like admiration and responsibility. In other words, humans not only rank things via hierarchies but likewise engage in precise comparisons.

Those two features of human psychology allow for the creation of role models. They allow for us to identify a person who is much better at something than we are, a something to which we take great interest in, and then subsequently place them either above or below others inside a hierarchy. We can identify those who are more beautiful, those who are incredibly intelligent, or even those who are physically gifted for sports. As much composes the basis of role models.

Yet so simple a process is bound to be misused. We are bound to place far too high, so as to be above criticism or rebuke, the skills of those we adore; we are bound to compare ourselves to those we place above us when it is entirely unreasonable to do so; we are bound to rely too heavily on comparison in shaping our identity; and we are bound to be far too selective in our comparing ourselves to our role models. In essence, we are bound to make unreasonable judgements about role models, and it is that issue which I seek to address herein.

 Reasonable Judgements About Role Models

Role models are wonderful. They provide for us a map with which we can guide our self-development. When we ask who we want to be, we can see in physical form the person we hope to become; when we wonder what a meaningful life appears to be, we can readily find a template in the life of our role model; and when we come across difficult moral choices, we are able to ask what our role models would do in such situations. Role models provide for us a map to the world around us and inside us.

But all too often people become unreasonable in their judgements about role models. Not unreasonable in the concepts and ideas regarding the notion of a role model, but in how they view their own role models. Many of us agree that role models are important, but some of us have unreasonable degrees of importance attributed to our role models. Let’s explain.

Placing Role Models Beyond Rebuke

We are all guilty of this at some point in our life. When we are young, of course we place far above others our own role models. Young boys and girls argue about which superhero is the best, and how their superhero can win any fight because they have little to no flaws; and even teenagers and young adults admire writers, athletes, and singers as though they were better than most others. But it is important that we grow out of that stage; that we come to the realization of the imperfections in everyone.

If we cannot critique that which we hold in high regard, then we no longer have a role model but instead a personal God. We have something not neither human nor physically real, we instead have an unreasonable ideal rooted in imagination. And since no one can point to the flaws of this Godly role model, it becomes all the more useless to admire; only because we cannot say that this Godly ideal is a good map.

As example, consider Superman. When Superman faces physical adversity, it becomes readily apparent that his choice and our own choice will not be similar. And so, Superman is fairly useless as a role model for physical adversity. Have a back injury, yet want to work out? Well, Superman would never face such a life choice; whereas Batman, on the other hand, has faced such a situation many times. Whereas Superman would instantly heal, Batman would be required to use human medicine to recover, and work within the context of a fragile human body. And so, the similarity between us and Batman makes him more useful as a role model than Superman, if we are concerned about physical adversity. The point being, a God who is beyond critique and imperfection will have no similarities to us, and so we cannot use their choices and behaviors in our own life because they do not face similar constraints.

Hence, it is a mistake to place a role model beyond imperfection. For if we fail to note their vulnerabilities, then we cannot make a realistic model of who they really are. Which brings us to our second point.

Selective and Unrealistic Comparisons 

When we compare ourselves to others, as we have already established, we do so in a precise manner. We compare not our entire being, but instead a specific domain or trait like our career or sociableness. And that runs a risk to us.

We run the risk of being too selective in our comparisons. We might compare ourselves to Einstein and also view him as the epitome of intelligence, but that misses the full picture. Einstein was good at the violin, but professionals could tell he was not quite a master; Einstein was a master of theoretical physics, but he knew little about psychology and human relationships – by his own admission. When we avoid being too selective in our comparisons, we start to develop a more complete picture of our role models.

Rather than Einstein being at the top of a mountain, with no other intellect around, it is more the case that he was on only one of the many mountains around him; and he might have not even been on top the highest mountain around.

Not only should we be wider in our comparisons, but also contextualize them. It is wonderful to appreciate Einstein’s accomplishments, but a contextualized comparison would make note of those who helped him achieve. For example, his thought experiment for light can be found, verbatim, in a science magazine he read as a young boy. There were no shortages of helping hands for Einstein.

The point being, not only do we need to look at the shortcomings of a person when we look at their accomplishments, but we also need to see how they actually became who they were: who helped them, what struggles and failures did they face, and etc. In other words, do not make comparisons on idealizations of people, but instead make comparisons rooted in their actual personhood and life experiences.

Too dependent

Another frequently made mistake when we find role models: dependency. A role model is not meant to be a replacement for our own identity, but is instead meant to be a supplement or guide for shaping our identity and life. There is a line which can be crossed, mistakenly so, when adopting a role model; and it is indeed crossed when we no longer use role models as supplements but instead as manuals.

Suppose you admire a famous writer like Tolkien. You want to live a life similar to his, write books similar to his, and even study the things he studied. That, on the surface level, seems fine. But if that is to be taken to mean mimicry, then it is too dependent. If you admire Tolkien so that you wear the same clothes he wore, write the same books he wrote, and have no independent thought for yourself, you no longer have a role model but instead a self-assembly instruction manual.

Role models are not intended to replace your own conception of self. They are meant to aid in your conception of self. And so, we must be careful about how reliant upon role models we become. There is such a thing as being too reliant upon role models.


Role models are wonderful, I have many of my own. But we can misuse them. When I was younger I thought writers like Steven Pinker were brilliant; and now having matured, I still enjoy his writing, but I have a much less idealized view of his writings now. It is important to have a more realistic view of our role models.

We are wise to realize their accomplishments in the contexts of their life experiences and challenges; we are wise to realize the shortcomings of our role models, like Einstein’s shortcoming in human psychology and relationships; and we are wise to avoid any significant dependencies on our role models.

A reasonable worldview on role models is as necessary as role models themselves, if we are to gain utility from having a role model.

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Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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