Why Everybody Thinks They’re Above Average
December 5, 2011 3 Comments
One of the better-known psychology factoids is that 80% of people tend to think they are above average (if you don’t know this, you’re clearly in the “below-average” 20%). However, not much attention has been paid the underlying judgment mechanisms that lead people to over-estimate their abilities. A new study explains this tendency by finding evidence for what the researchers call the “better-than-my-average-effect.” Essentially, we evaluate how we really are by looking at our best performances, but when we evaluate others we tend to focus on their average performance.
In Studies 1a and 1b, participants were more likely to believe that their own most attractive photographs best represent their typical appearance than others’ do. In Study 2, participants’ estimates of where they stand on various trait dimensions coincided with their highest possible standing, whereas their estimates of an acquaintance’s standing coincided with the midpoint between the latter’s highest and lowest possible standing. In Study 3, regression analyses revealed that students’ predictions of their own final exam score were based most heavily on their highest score received to that point, but their predictions of someone else’s final exam score was based most heavily on that student’s average score.
The tendency to focus on your best outcomes may seem like a cute little bias, but it can cause problems if it gets generalized to the group level. For example, it can contribute to the beliefs that make it difficult to persuade people to change their political views or compromise on policy. When a republican evaluates conservative policies (i.e. their “own” ability”), they will focus on past peak outcomes (Reagan) rather than the average performance (Bush who?) Similarly, a democrat will evaluate liberal policies through the lens of FDR or Bill Clinton. When it comes to evaluating the opposing party, neither person will be as generously close-minded. The result it that people tend to believe their political views are always right. Unless Fox News is willing to air a VH1 style “100 Worst Conservative Policy Blunders” series, these beliefs are unlikely to change.
Williams, E.F & Gilovich, T. (2011). The better-than-my-average effect: The relative impact of peak and average performances in assessments of the self and others Journal of Experimental Social Psychology