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The psychological roots of tall poppy syndrome

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Does our historically homogeneous and egalitarian society stifle ambition and foster a dislike of the tall poppy?

It would be surprising if Kiwis did not care about ambition, but, as with most things, neither should we expect everyone to be equally ambitious. Large-scale surveys suggest about a quarter of us think being successful, ambitious and influential is very important. For just under 5%, it’s supremely important.

Generally, the more years of formal education you receive, and the more you earn, the more ambitious you are. Men are more ambitious than women. Young people are more ambitious than older people, and, although many people may think that Aucklanders are more go-getting, Dunedinites are the most ambitious of us, followed by Wellingtonians, with Aucklanders third. National Party voters (and perhaps MPs) are pipped only by Act Party supporters in the ambition stakes. Statistically, Act is in a whole Dragons’ Den of its own, in fact.

But we don’t just care about the pursuit and rewards of ambition; almost twice as many of us think that equality and fairness are very important, and they are the guiding principles for one in five of us. That is because we are, historically at least, a bunch of hand-wringing egalitarians who not only look askance at anyone who dares to be a tall poppy, but also apply the same standard to ourselves.

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Indeed, although the notion of the tall poppy dates back a couple of thousand years, and has meaning across the English-speaking world, much of the research on it has focused on New Zealand and Australia. Australian social psychology professor Norm Feather was so interested in what he saw as a peculiarly Antipodean habit of “cutting tall poppies down to size” that he spent years studying it.

Imagine, he asked school students, someone who’s usually the best academic performer but starts to get average marks. How happy would this make you? What about someone who usually sits around the middle of the class, but who now finds themselves at the bottom? Generally, his student participants were more pleased with, but also more friendly towards, the former high-flyer brought relatively low.

And it’s not just hypothetical scenarios, either. We feel the same about real-life “stars” brought low. Feather was particularly interested in political falls from grace, but the same pattern applies.

Some people experience a greater degree of schadenfreude than others – and it’s not pretty. Remember Ben Johnson, who was exposed as a drug cheat after winning the 100m gold medal in the 1988 Olympics? Lower self-esteem and feeling less positive about yourself mean you take greater joy in the beheading of such tall poppies. It’s not just Aussies: Feather found the Japanese even less forgiving than his compatriots.

For New Zealanders, research reflects what we see around us: tall poppies are more likely to be cut down, but – and it’s an interesting but – we have our regional and ethnic differences. Pākehā are less supportive of fellow Pākehā high achievers, but Māori are more encouraging and less critical of fellow Māori.

In a 2007 Psychology Today article, Fiona Haley wrote, “Inhabitants of a former penal colony, Aussies have inherent contempt for authority. In many ways, success and power reek of domination, which turns natives off.” It also doesn’t explain our own aversion to the tall poppy. Instead, she cites University of Auckland professor Suchi Mouly’s suggestion that Kiwis have been so relatively culturally homogeneous for such a long time that we are suspicious of those whose talents stand out.

This hints at a reluctance to celebrate our achievements (and, yes, our ambitions) without losing our shiny egalitarian idealism.

Marc Wilson is a professor of psychology at Victoria University.

This article is part of the feature Ambition: What We Secretly Think, first published in the March 16, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.