As a colloquial term used occasionally in psychology, psychiatry, and psychoanalysis, the Napoleon complex refers to a specific type of inferiority complex associated with short people, and especially with short men. It is also sometimes called the “Napoleon syndrome” or the “short-man complex.” Individuals with this disposition are claimed to overcompensate for their short stature by being excessively belligerent, hostile, or quarrelsome in their interpersonal relationships. A fictional example is depicted in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men : The character Curley was a “shorty” who always felt obliged to prove his worth by picking fights with bigger men. However, the Napoleon complex is said to motivate other forms of behavior besides interpersonal violence and aggression. Most innocuously, a short male might make himself feel taller by placing home wall hangings a little lower than normal. Or he might wear shoes with slightly thicker heels.
In contrast, such persons may be driven to ameliorate their supposed low self-esteem by pursuing highly ambitious goals. In fact, the eponymic source for the term is Napoléon Bonaparte, whose military and amorous conquests have been attributed to the desire to compensate for his diminutive size. Nevertheless, this attribution lacks merit insofar as Napoléon was actually a bit taller than the average Frenchman of his day. His alleged shortness derived from a commonplace misunderstanding of the contemporary French inch (which was 7 percent longer than the modern English inch) as well as a mistranslation of his nickname le petit caporal into “little corporal” (when petit indicates affection rather than dimension). Thus, ironically, Napoléon is not a genuine example of the Napoleon complex. Indeed, the fact that he surrounded himself with an elite guard of soldiers who were all at least six feet tall suggests that he was not at all defensive about his own height.
The Napoleon complex is often associated with the name of Alfred Adler, a former associate of Sigmund Freud and the founder of Individual Psychology. A key concept in Adler’s theory was the inferiority complex. Although this psychological condition may take many forms, an especially crucial one is the sense of organ inferiority with respect to some physical trait. This conception may have been partially inspired by Adler’s own experiences as a sickly child, including a bout with rickets that prevented him from walking until he was four. Under special circumstances, the individual may respond to organ inferiority by directly overcompensating for the disability. An illustration is Wilma Rudolph, a victim of debilitating childhood polio who later became the first American woman to win three track-and-field gold medals at the Olympic Games. Other times overcompensation will adopt a more oblique or symbolic form. Hence, because short persons cannot easily make themselves physically taller, they may act to appear psychologically taller—more dominant, assertive, even antagonistic or arrogant. For some individuals of potential genius, the solution may be an extraordinary need for power that takes the guise of military conquest. Accordingly, the Napoleon complex can be viewed as a particular implication of Adlerian psychology.
Even so, Adler himself did not invent the term. Despite identifying numerous “complexes” of various kinds, the Napoleon complex was not included among them, nor was Napoléon used to illustrate overcompensation. Moreover, the complex does not constitute a recognized personality disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association, and the term is seldom granted an entry in encyclopedias and dictionaries devoted to psychological science and practice. In addition, the Napoleon complex is almost never the explicit subject of scientific research in the professional journals of psychology, psychoanalysis, or psychiatry. In the main, it represents a pseudoscientific term that is popular among journalists who want to provide an apparent explanation for the behavior of politicians, entrepreneurs, and other celebrities who happen to be shorter than average. It has also become a mainstay of folk psychology, the expression at times being evoked to explicate the odd behavior of a friend or acquaintance.
Yet, somewhat surprisingly, the Napoleon complex has recently been introduced as a scientific concept in a totally unexpected discipline, namely, evolutionary biology. In animal species that feature male competition for reproductive opportunities and resources, it is sometimes the smaller rather than the larger male who most likely initiates aggressive behavior. This phenomenon has been subjected to cost-benefit analyses that indicate the conditions under which such seemingly maladaptive behavior is most likely to be selected. Nonetheless, it is clear that this usage departs significantly from the original meaning of the term. This novel application may therefore not revive the Napoleon complex as a technical term in the social sciences.
SEE ALSO Inferiority Complex; Overachievers; Personality; Personality, Authoritarian; Psychoanalytic Theory; Psychology; Self-Esteem
Just, Winfried, and Molly R. Morris. 2003. The Napoleon Complex: Why Smaller Males Pick Fights. Evolutionary Ecology 17: 509-522.
Dean Keith Simonton