Post No.: 0073
Research on this area has mostly been in ‘Western’ countries so cultural differences may or may not present different data but, relative to other people concerning many desirable traits, most people think they’re (way) above either the median or the average (which are essentially the same value in a normal distribution i.e. a bell-shaped curve distribution, which probably applies to most things that are measured in the social sciences) – for which many of these people logically cannot be correct for traits that fall under a normal distribution, such as IQ – only up to half of the population will be truly statistically above average, no matter the range or variance between the best and the worst people i.e. no matter how bad the worst are or how good the best are. Regarding some particular traits, this belief is slightly more prevalent in males than females, but in general both genders fall significantly for this bias. This is the hugely pervasive ‘illusory superiority bias’, ‘above-average effect’ or ‘positive illusory bias’.
Even those who are genuinely above the median or average aren’t usually quite as great as they think they are i.e. they still often overestimate themselves (e.g. a 60th percentile person thinking they are a 90th percentile person). We both overrate our furry strengths and underrate our fuzzy weaknesses. We’re often convinced about our own grandeur and odds of success compared to the statistical odds (e.g. of getting rich if we start a venture, winning a competition, winning the lottery if we play, winning a physical fight with another person, of not getting a particular serious illness despite our lifestyles, our level of attraction, etc.). Many people also frequently fantasise on some or most days about e.g. being a winner, being the most funny, charming, important or desirable person in the room, or being able to win the heart of a celebrity crush and how they’d do it (e.g. by being their hero or seducing them!) Although there’s a difference between fantasising and truly believing in one’s odds here I suppose.
This illusory superiority bias can become even more extreme in situations where people cannot in real-time, simultaneously, directly, objectively and exactly like-for-like compare to others on an ability (such as driving, because we’re only ever in one vehicle with one driver at a time) i.e. when comparisons can only be done via memory and subjective interpretation. One can also always rationalise that the conditions for one’s own near-misses, accidents, mistakes and failures were different to what others have ever faced when conditions are idiosyncratic too i.e. excuses can always be made to preserve one’s illusory superiority bias! People cannot defend these biases quite so easily when they can see a direct and real-time comparison with other people (e.g. in a head-to-head competition) – still, excuses will likely be made (e.g. ‘I just had an off day’, ‘they cheated/had an unfair advantage’, ‘how about a best-out-of-three?’)! General intelligence and roadcraft skill are aspects that most adults particularly overrate themselves. (Note that if IQ tests are used to measure general intelligence then IQ scores are periodically normalised so that the average for each age bracket is set to 100 – therefore one cannot directly compare their raw IQ score with people’s scores from other age brackets nor with the historical test scores of anyone from history, without adjustment.)
Most people hold a frightening level of overconfidence in themselves being correct as a result. People also have this unsettlingly limitless capacity to blame other people or other things too (excuse-making e.g. blaming one’s tools or immigrants), which just compounds this arrogance even further, and serves to uphold people’s biased view of self-superiority, self-righteousness and self-correctness e.g. crashing into a parked car and still being able to blame the parked car rather than one’s own driving ability! Or blaming elected politicians even though we ultimately voted for them in a democratic process – so on the one hand most of us consider ourselves superb intuitive judges of other people’s characters, yet we will not blame ourselves for being duped by others when we’ve misjudged their characters nor blame ourselves for not putting enough consideration into people’s situational rather than dispositional factors e.g. understanding that any person would struggle if they were faced with the same set of circumstances.
And yet we wouldn’t want to take their job to ‘show them how to do it properly’ – we’d rather believe that we would do a better job than them than risk actually putting ourselves in the firing line and endangering this belief of self-superiority by risking failure if we tried ourselves! In any context, it’s easier staying the critic, particularly behind the safety of a screen, than being e.g. a creator or entrepreneur. (Having said that, we must continue to scrutinise our elected representatives.)
People tend to automatically blame others and in particular outgroups for their own faults and failures. This can help preserve our self-esteem but it can lead to a lack of self-improvement and a dangerous prejudice towards outgroups. The bias to blame others also includes if you’re trying to change someone and cannot get the desired results from them, and rather than blaming yourself as the ‘teacher’ you blame the ‘pupil’, hence one will fail to improve one’s own teaching methods and motivational skills (yet if the positions were reversed and you were the ‘pupil’ then you’d probably blame the ‘teacher’!) So such biases can protect one’s self-esteem but they do so in conceited ways. Seldom accepting responsibility for negative outcomes means people likely never learn from their own mistakes and thus people will likely make the same mistakes again. (Although sometimes in legal or public reputation contexts, lawyers or PR agents, for instance, may advise one not to admit liability even if one really should take responsibility and privately feels responsible for something – this complicates matters.) Thinking that one’s generation is fundamentally different to those of the past also means that new generations will likely commit the same mistakes as their predecessors.
Everyone or everything else will tend to get blamed, at least first, rather than oneself (and immigrants are the typical easy targets). Then confirmation bias will mean that one will then only search for proof of external faults rather than looking internally for reasons, and this gets amplified if one is in an insular ingroup that acts as an echo chamber. Thus due to the combination of the illusory superiority and confirmation biases – most people think they’re smarter than they really are, and so they highlight and remember only all the times they’ve been right (or ‘were about to say the right answer’ after being told the right answer) to confirm this bias, while dismissing and forgetting all the (possibly more frequent) times they’ve been wrong (or had a wrong answer in the back of their minds that they were about to utter out but didn’t in public hence they can hide these errors). Woof!
Most people think e.g. cancer, mental illness or accidents won’t strike them but only other people, even when the statistics show that they have a decent chance. People tend to think ‘these statistics don’t apply to me’ even when they have no evidence or good reason why their specific individual case should be considered atypical. We should rationally follow the sample or population statistics as a guide for oneself if we don’t have good and relevant reasons to explain why we should be considered an exceptional case. This bias is itself an indication that one biasedly thinks one is particularly special or unique amongst all people! (Now the summary statistics for a sample or population group won’t necessary accord with the statistic for a specific individual within that group or inferred from it, but they won’t necessary not accord either – if, on a case-by-case basis, your individual case has no evidence or reason to defy the sample or population statistics then you must rationally follow the sample or population statistics as a guide to work out your own personal odds, because without further and reliable information or empirical evidence regarding your own specific individual case, your case will most probabilistically match the average statistical odds for the sample or population as a whole.)
The ‘Dunning-Kruger effect’ is a bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority and mistakenly rate their own ability much higher than is accurate; furthermore, skilled individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding as them. (Generally, people perceive their own cognitive abilities and test scores as being around the 60-75th percentile region, whether they are actually in the 10th to the 90th percentile in true test scores.) This effect could be at least partially explained because unskilled people tend to hang around other unskilled people hence are only mainly comparing to each other, and skilled people tend to hang around other skilled people hence are only mainly comparing to their own group i.e. we can feel really smart if we mainly hang around and interact with less smart people, and vice-versa! For example, we can overrate our wisdom if we mainly or only actively comment on stupid things other people say on social media. But this perception of superiority is likely false, especially because we need to interact with people smarter than us (e.g. professors, lecturers) in order to actually get smarter and thus become smart. Truly smart people are therefore not likely to be arrogant or cocky.
Maybe you’ve been reading all this and thinking ‘yeah I know some of these people who overrate themselves’ without pointing the finger at yourself too, or some other excuse! If so, that would only serve the point. Yes, some people are more blatantly overconfident than others but we’ve virtually all thought a bit too highly of ourselves in one aspect or another, at one time or another, or in general. This widespread illusory superiority bias arguably evolved for a good reason though, particularly for a curious species like humans – to be completely unconfident when approaching the many risks that come as part of life will mean less exploration. The illusions of superiority and control and a bias towards optimism have probably been overall advantageous for the species.
Also, to beat oneself up about not ever being good or worthy enough is not healthy for one’s mental health either. Automatically blaming oneself for all faults can be a sign of depression. Overcompensation is a fragile state too e.g. feeling insecure in private but cockily trying to promote oneself as ‘the best’ – because when one finds out one is not actually the best it’ll just compound one’s insecurities even more; plus this egotistical attitude rarely wins one any (true) friends either, which will again compound one’s insecurities. As usual, it’s about finding that right balance, in this case between confidence and humility.
Biases are hard, if not impossible, to identify or accept by ourselves because it’s like trying to tell a particularly arrogant blind person what they’re missing – we’re blind to what we cannot see so we intuitively assume we’re not blind at all. The ‘bias blind spot’ is being unaware of and/or unable to compensate for one’s own biases (the bias of not thinking one is biased – please read Post No.: 0019 for more). The best way to identify biases is therefore via scientific experiments rather than intuition or personal experience. Yet classically and predictably, people may learn about human psychological biases but will still perhaps believe these don’t apply to them but only other people, or forget about them during their day-to-day thoughts and so fail to remember to compensate for them! And it’s even harder to change people’s entire worldviews because of their echo chambers and confirmation bias.
This illusory superiority bias is both a fun one to explore but also a dangerous one to find in certain real-world contexts. More will be said about this bias and many other human biases in future posts.