What exactly makes a person "self-righteous"?

What characteristics make a person self-righteous; what does it even mean?

I happen to like this definition, I think it says it all:
having too high an opinion of one's own merits, and being intolerant of other people's faults.
A typical sort of thing a self-righteous person might say, or at least think, is: "I'm right, anyone who disagrees with me is wrong."

It used to be applied specifically to religious people who thought they were the only ones who were acting in accordance with God's will, and that everyone else was evi/doomed/etc. That is to say, people who set themselves up as judges of who qualified as "righteous" and who didn't.

Nowadays it is often used in a wider sense for anyone who thinks they are better than everyone else and that only their way is the right way.

Self-righteousness often goes with dogmatism (there's only ONE right way, and I know it), but not necessarily with fundamentalism. In fact many groups, in various religions, do NOT adhere to the fundamental beliefs and principles of their parent religion (the correct definition of "fundamentalist), and such sects and cults often set themselves above those who follow the fundamental. "orthodox" teachings of the religion.

It is also untrue to say that self-righteous people are automatically lacking in social skills. In the case of cult members, they frequently behave in a very caring, charming, friendly manner towards outsiders, whilst secretly believing that they are dealing with "scum", "satan's spawn", etc. and that everyone outside the cult is inexorably bound for some form of damnation.

It is also not uncommon for self-righteous people to be lacking in self-esteem rather than narcissistic (a genuine narcissist doesn't actually care about other people or their opinions), as being self-righteous can be a person's way of trying to make themselves seem more important/worthwhile than they really feel.
It's a combination of dogmatism/fundamentalism and narcissism, with a little bit of social clulessness (i.e., low emotional/social intelligence) thrown in for good measure.
When they believe they are better than anyone else. We are all 'sinners' ... none of us are truly righteous.
I like Resis' answer. Self-righteousness is indeed socially clueless and, indeed, 180 degrees away from anything "social" as in pertaining to society and other people's thoughts and beliefs. Self-righteousness doesn't recognize any beliefs save its own; doesn't respect any other points of view or allow deviation from its own rules.
I have come across many "self-righteous" person in courts.
Actually, I finished a Court case after 5-years where the opponent lawyers were all along making clear that I was wrong and didn't know what I was talking about, etc. As they usually do.
Over the 5-year period I wrote numerous documents about numerous constitutional issues and they kept making clear I didn’t know what I was talking about, and they would succeed in the case.
Yet, they did not respond to my material, regardless that legally they had too.

Finally after 5-years they admitted they had no answer against the issues I had raised. They were totally defeated on all constitutional issues.

Those are one of the worst kind of people who are using taxpayers money to pursue a person regardless how wrong they are, and in the end proven in court, yet are so “self-righteous” about themselves that they even think they can get away with it, and often do because making clear that if they win then they be charging more then one hundred thousand dollars in cost, sufficient to freighting most people as to cave in.
Likewise, many judges have this “self-righteous” conduct where they then make decision that are non sensible in law but they know that generally they get away with it.

“Self-righteous” conduct is often coming from a person assuming some authority, that may not exist as such, because they think they can get away with what they are doing.
The more powerful or richer a person is more likely the more they act in a way of self-righteous”.

I recall and incident, some decades ago, where I noticed some Aboriginals at a camp fire. As I had previously seen wood dumped in the city of building renovations, I decided to get some for them. My daughter (then about 5) was with me. We returned to the campfire and I offered the timber which they accepted and invited us to stay there. Despite the late hour my daughter didn’t want to leave as she enjoyed what was going on and so we stayed for a considerable time.
The leader of the Aboriginals then was explaining to me that he had a flat nearby (actually was an expensive flat) but he preferred to sleep near the campfire with the other Aboriginals, not because he was poor but because of enjoying this.
He explained to me that he was surprised I had, without them asking, gone for wood for their campfire, as most people were of some “self-righteous” conduct that they verbally abused the Aboriginals as being no good and they were the better ones and this even so he had a good job and an expensive flat and as such not particularly a beggar.

At times, we may look down upon others and have some “self-righteous” conduct that we are the better person but in reality we might be ignorant to what it is about.
Perhaps, dress up like a vagabond and see the kind of treatment you get, to see that how others deal with you might be how they assume you are and not what you are in real life.
Hence, when you come across a person that you may think is not up to your standards, then just think if you were as that person, just dressed up how wrong others would you to be. Then consider that perhaps that person also may have something you might not be aware off!

When I was residing in a small country town with up to 5 of my children as a single father (parent) I was very often verbally criticised by people for having all those children, etc. Even going to the local store was resulting of verbal abuse.
After my children were adults they asked me why did I endure this ongoing verbal abuse rather then tell them the truth. I explained to my children I held it was none of their business and so couldn’t bother to tell them.
You see some of the children were not my natural born children but as they had been born during the marriage I had accepted them as my own rather then having them ending up in a children home. To me it was none of the others business and so I had no need then to tell them about it and neither was this required. People simply assumed something and then took it from there. Their “self-righteous” conduct was they had every right to verbally abuse me as they were the better persons.
When a local young woman fell pregnant they assume I was the father, regardless no sexual relationship existed but that they didn’t know, as the young woman and myself and my youngest daughter would be sitting in the park for hours. We were just friends. Again, I copped the rot for months on end. It was not until after the birth of the child that the (unmarried) mother made known who the biological father was. People then realising that they had abused me where I had nothing to do with the pregnancy.
But, not a single person apologized as they argued I should have told them the truth!

Their “self-righteous” conduct is that I was obligated to tell them something. To me it was none of their business and as the young woman asked me not to tell anyone anything but asked me if I didn’t mind to keep silent, I held that her wellbeing was more important then the “self-righteous” people who were doing the verbal abuse.

The young woman had been scared about what people may say and indeed asked me what my views were about abortion and if that might be better then having people on her back, and I indicated that she should ignore anyone and while it was not for me to say if she was or wasn’t to have an abortion I value life and would respect her if she was to have the baby, even if it was that I was to cop the flake in the meantime.

Yes, this is the kind of horrific consequences that can result form the conduct of “self-righteous” people who think they are better then others and seek to criticise anyone ignoring how harmful this can be to their victim.

We all should show understanding and accept that we may not personally approve of what we consider inappropriate conduct (to our standards) of others but lets be open minded and you may just discover later that your original first impressions were wrong and then you can be glad not to have been “self-righteous” in the first place.
If I judge others, attempting to raise myself above others. Position is power.
Self-righteousness is a form of arrogance, often with religious or moral implications. The self-righteous person strongly believes that his or her views on religion or morality are absolutely correct and that it only makes sense for everyone to follow these views. The self-righteous person will act quite indignant when he or she sees someone doing something he or she does not agree with. On the other hand, a self-righteous person remains blissfully unaware of his or her often blatant character flaws (pride being the most obvious to others).

Condemnation or "merciful" pity are the self-righteous person's attitude towards others' behavior.

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