Are you a better driver than most people? What about a better friend? What if we told you that the majority of people think the exact same thing about themselves? It doesn’t make mathematical sense—by definition, half of all people must be below average—but it’s true. The idea that most people rate themselves more positively than they rate others is a cornerstone of psychology research. It’s known as the better-than-average effect.
Study after study has shown evidence that the better-than-average effect is real, but there are still plenty of questions. For example, does it happen because people feel the need to see themselves as better than other people, or is there something inherent in the way we judge ourselves that makes us self-rate as above average? And anyway, is it so wrong? Some of us must be above average on some things, and most of us won’t go too terribly far in our favorable self-judgments. As The Economist puts it, “Believing that I can do a little better than my team’s average of an eight-minute mile may motivate me to improve my time. Believing that I can run twice as fast as the average is simply setting myself up for failure. Reality can only be distorted so far before it snaps.”
But reality can get plenty distorted. The most striking example of the better-than-average effect in action is a 2013 study published in the British Journal of Social Psychology. It’s so striking because the study researchers focused on people who are objectively below average on a wide variety of personality traits: convicted prisoners. They found that, when comparing themselves to other inmates, the prisoners rated themselves as more moral, trustworthy, honest, dependable, compassionate, generous, law-abiding, self-controlled, and kinder. Maybe that’s not surprising—they’re rating themselves against their own peers, after all—but this is: they also rated themselves as better than the average non-prisoner on all but one trait. That trait was law-abidingness, which they rated as equal to the average non-prisoner. (What?)
This goes to show that we can have an awfully skewed perception of our own strengths. This can be good when you’re trying to surmount an obstacle—otherwise, you might never apply for that job that’s just beyond your reach or sign up for that marathon you’re not actually ready for—but it can also make you underestimate your problems, and keep you from fixing them when you need to.
There is one caveat, however. The better-than-average effect appears to be cultural. A Canadian study found that when you control for other factors, people in East-Asian cultures don’t tend to rate themselves as better than other people. This may come down to the way Western society most values the individual, while Eastern society most values the collective community.
I guess the key question is whether you think that you are better than others…
Check out my related post here: How to avoid the comparison trap?