Better than average

Illusory superiority is a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate their positive qualities and abilities and to underestimate their negative qualities, relative to others. This is evident in a variety of areas including intelligence, performance on tasks or tests, and the possession of desirable characteristics or personality traits. It is one of many positive illusions relating to the self, and is a phenomenon studied in social psychology.”

(wikipedia). Some data from the article as well as some of the sources and related material. Unless a link is provided, the quote/data is from the wiki article:

“In a survey of faculty at the University of Nebraska, 68% rated themselves in the top 25% for teaching ability.[13]

In a similar survey, 87% of MBA students at Stanford University rated their academic performance as above the median.[14]

“When more than 90 percent of faculty members rate themselves as above-average teachers, and two-thirds rate themselves among the top quarter, the outlook for much improvement in teaching seems less than promising.” (link)

“social feedback tends to be incredibly misleading. Social psychologist David Sears has studied what he calls the “person-positivity bias”—people’s tendency to evaluate other people positively in the absence of any good reason not to.7 In an examination of student evaluations of their professors at UCLA, comprising literally hundreds of thousands of ratings, Sears found that the average was 7.22 on a nine-point scale. This is well above the midpoint of five, which was designated “average” on the evaluation forms.” (link)

“One of the first studies that found the effect of illusory superiority was carried out in 1976 by the College Board in the USA.[17] A survey was attached to the SAT exams (taken by approximately one million students per year), asking the students to rate themselves relative to the median of the sample (rather than the average peer) on a number of vague positive characteristics. In ratings of leadership ability, 70% of the students put themselves above the median. In ability to get on well with others, 85% put themselves above the median, and 25% rated themselves in the top 1%.”

Self-esteem may have an important modifying role here:

“Extending the better than average effect, 3 studies examined self-, friend, and peer comparisons of personal attributes. Participants rated themselves as better off than friends, who they rated as superior to generalized peers. The exception was in direct comparisons, where the self and friends were not strongly differentiated on unambiguous negative attributes. Self-esteem and construal played moderating roles, with persons with high self-esteem (HSEs) exploiting both ambiguous positive and ambiguous negative traits to favor themselves. Persons lower in self-esteem exploited ambiguous positive traits in their favor but did not exploit ambiguous negative traits. Across self-esteem level, ratings of friends versus peers were exaggerated when attributes were ambiguous. HSEs seemed to take advantage of ambiguity more consistently to present favorable self-views; people with low self-esteem used ambiguity to favor their friends but were reluctant to minimize their own faults.” (link)

And similar findings are reported here:

“Three investigations are reported that examined the relation between self-appraisals and appraisals of others. In Experiment 1, subjects rated a series of valenced trait adjectives according to how well the traits described the self and others. Individuals displayed a pronounced “self-other bias,” such that positive attributes were rated as more descriptive of self than of others, whereas negative attributes were rated as less descriptive of self than of others. Furthermore, in contrast to C. R. Rogers’s (1951) assertion that high self-esteem is associated with a comparable regard for others, the tendency for individuals to evaluate the self in more favorable terms than they evaluated people in general was particularly pronounced among those with high self-esteem. These findings were replicated and extended in Experiment 2, where it also was found that self-evaluations were more favorable than were evaluations of a friend and that individuals with high self-esteem were most likely to appraise their friends more positively than they appraised the average person. The findings of Experiment 3 revealed that the tendency for those with high self-esteem to judge themselves and their friends more favorably than they assessed most other people was not restricted to only those individuals showing a high need for social approval.” (link)

Age matters too, at least in some contexts: “People generally evaluate their own attributes and abilities more favorably than those of an average peer. The current study explored whether age moderates this better-than-average effect. We asked young (n = 87), middle-aged (n = 75), and older adults (n  = 77) to evaluate themselves and an average peer on a variety of trait and ability dimensions. On most dimensions, a better-than-average effect was observed for young, middle-aged, and older adults. However, on dimensions for which older individuals have clear deficiencies (i.e., athleticism, physical attractiveness), a better-than-average effect was observed for young and middle-aged adults, while a worse-than-average effect was observed for older adults. We argue that egocentrism accounts for these age differences in comparative self-evaluations.” (link)

This paper, which was one of the few I was able to find a full version of online, reports some more details about the MBA-study, among other things. Data and a few observations from that paper: “87 percent of Stanford MBA students recently rated their academic performance to be in the top two quartiles (“It’s Academic” 2000). Compared with their peers, 90 percent of these students also believed that they were either average or above average in terms of quantitative abilities; only 10 percent judged themselves to be below average. […]

“In virtually any population, the majority of individuals have fewer friends than do their own friends (Feld 1991). We found, however, that 41.7 percent of those who responded to the survey claimed to have more friends than their own friends; this figure is almost three times greater than the proportion who reported having fewer friends than their own friends (16.1%). Again, the mean response (3.33) differed significantly from the neutral midpoint of the scale […]

“we found that self-enhancement was greater in self versus friend comparisons than in self versus “typical other” comparisons. This finding supports Tesser’s model of self-evaluation maintenance, which holds that people may be more threatened by the success of friends than by that of strangers under conditions of high personal relevance (Tesser 1988; Tesser and Campbell 1982; Tesser et al. 1989). The central message in this line of researchis that we feel the need “to keep up with the Joneses” precisely because they are our neighbors.”

Back to the wiki: “Researchers have also found the effects of illusory superiority in studies into relationship satisfaction. For example, one study found that participants perceived their own relationships as better than others’ relationships on average, but thought that the majority of people were happy with their relationships. Also, this study found evidence that the higher the participants rated their own relationship happiness, the more superior they believed their relationship was.” (link to abstract)

Most people consider themselves to be more skilled at driving a vehicle than are other people: “In [previous] studies subjects were asked to judge how safely they drove in comparison with the average driver, vaguely defined as drivers in general. Typically, the results showed that around 70-80% of the subjects were reported to put themselves in the safer half of the distribution. […] In the US group 88% and in the Swedish group 77% believed themselves to be safer than the median driver.
The medians for the distributions of skill judgments fall in the interval 61-70% for the US group and between 51-60% for the Swedish group. Of the US sample 46.3% regard themselves among the most skillful 20%. The corresponding number in the Swedish group was only 15.5%. In the US sample 93% believed themselves to be more skillful drivers than the median driver and 69% of the Swedish drivers shared this belief in relation to their comparison group.

In summary, there was a strong tendency to believe oneself as safer and more skillful than the average driver. In addition, there seemed to be a stronger tendency to believe oneself as safer than and more skillful than the average person.” (link)

Some critical remarks here: “There is a further problem with attributing self-enhancement bias to all people who rate themselves “better off than most.” Ranking oneself relative to “most others” on a broadly construed dimension is inherently problematic. If people are asked to rank themselves relative to others on happiness, for example, Jeff might rank himself highly because of his ability as a baseball player, Jackie might rank herself highly because of her musical talents, and John might rank himself highly because of the money he has accumulated. Because these are important and defining characteristics of one’s self-concept, they represent appropriate choices on which to compare the self with others. It is thus conceivable that a majority of people can be better off than most when the dimension to be rated is vaguely defined and people are given the latitude to rank themselves on self-selected, often idiosyncratic categories. It has been demonstrated that when a dimension is clearly and precisely defined, thereby limiting private interpretations, the better-off-than-most effect diminishes ( Dunning, Meyerowitz, & Holzberg, 1989).” [I’m pretty sure I’ve touched upon this before, but I don’t consider it a strong point of criticism; the fact of the matter is that if it’s in any way possible for people to do this, they will when asked to compare themselves with others pick variables and interpretations of the questions which make them look good. In real life people always have some leeway, so what would happen if they couldn’t manipulate the comparison to make them look better is sort of a moot point. Be that as it may, the main result of this paper is intriguing:]

“In the longitudinal studies, self-enhancement was associated with poor social skills and psychological maladjustment 5 years before and 5 years after the assessment of self-enhancement. In the laboratory study, individuals who exhibited a tendency to self-enhance displayed behaviors, independently judged, that seemed detrimental to positive social interaction. These results indicate there are negative short-term and long-term consequences for individuals who self-enhance and, contrary to some prior formulations, imply that accurate appraisals of self and of the social environment may be essential elements of mental health. […] It seems abundantly clear from the present data that self-enhancement, far from serving as an aid to interpersonal or psychological adjustment, is part of a pattern of self-perception and behavior that must be viewed as unhealthy overall.” (“Since [this paper was published], further research has both undermined that conclusion and offered new evidence associating illusory superiority with negative effects on the individual.[2]” (quote from the wiki related to this paper).)


October 29, 2012 - Posted by | Psychology

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