Jailed criminals think they are kinder, more trustworthy and honest than the average member of the public

Many studies have shown that people tend to exaggerate their own positive characteristics and abilities. A popular example is the finding that most drivers think they are a better-than-average driver. This suggests there are many sub-standard drivers cruising our roads in the belief they are unusually gifted at the wheel. Similar findings apply for literally hundreds of traits, all of which supports the idea of a widespread, self-serving “better-than-average effect”.

However, sceptics have pointed out that perhaps most people really are better than average on many traits. In relation to driving, for example, perhaps the distribution of driving ability is negatively skewed, such that a minority of exceedingly bad drivers drag down the average, effectively leaving most people better than average.

To circumvent this possibility, a team led by Constantine Sedikides has surveyed 85 incarcerated offenders at a prison in South East England about their prosocial traits. The inmates were aged 18 to 34 and the majority had been jailed for acts of violence and robbery. There is no information on the participants’ gender. The inmates completed questionnaires anonymously and in relative privacy.

Compared with “an average prisoner” the participants rated themselves as more moral, kinder to others, more self-controlled, more law-abiding, more compassionate, more generous, more dependable, more trustworthy, and more honest. Remarkably, they also rated themselves as higher on all these traits than “an average member of the community”, with one exception – law-abiding. The prisoners rated themselves as equivalent on this trait relative to an average community member.

Sedikides and his team say these results show the better-than-average effect cannot be explained by the fact that most participants are in fact better than average. In this case, they said there was “good reason to assume that the average non-prisoner is more honest and law abiding than the average prisoner.”

Past research (pdf) on intellectual performance has shown that it is weaker performers who most over-estimate their own ability. Sedikides and his colleagues wondered if their new results add to this pattern, and raise the possibility of a more general tendency for those with especially poor skills or detrimental behavioural habits to lack insight into their own person. “Do serial divorcers think that they are better marital partners than the average spouse? Do people who overeat, smoke cigarettes, and fail to exercise assume they have better than average health habits,” the researchers pondered. If so, the researchers warned that the prospects for helping such people (and for rehabilitating prisoners) is not promising.

“It would be interesting and practically useful in future research to explore ways of debiasing better than average judgments,” the researchers said, “especially among groups for whom this self-view deviates considerably from reality.”

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Sedikides C, Meek R, Alicke MD, and Taylor S (2014). Behind bars but above the bar: Prisoners consider themselves more prosocial than non-prisoners. The British journal of social psychology / the British Psychological Society PMID: 24359153

further reading
Why we’re better at predicting other people’s behaviour than our own.
Strangers to ourselves? David Dunning with some fascinating studies into how and why we are deluded about the self.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

61 thoughts on “Jailed criminals think they are kinder, more trustworthy and honest than the average member of the public”

  1. Well then this means that putting people into jail does not help them see their faults and the whole put people in prison to make them behave won't work for most. We might try counseling instead of locking people up so that people who get in trouble with the law understand what they did wrong.

  2. We are looking at how the inmates characterize themselves relative to others, and assuming that they are rating themselves as being particularly kind and trustworthy. In fact, the more interesting thing may be that they assume that everyone else is so much less trustworthy. Perhaps at the core of some criminal behavior is the feeling that “everyone else is out to get me, so I'm going to have to do whatever it takes to protect myself from them.” Lacking the basic sense that others can be trusted could definitely be an enabling factor for committing crimes against them.

  3. Statistics, it allows me to say things like, “I have an above average number of arms.”

    So, there's a lot to trust about this article.

  4. Agreed with the two Anons above.

    Even the aspect where they rated law-abiding lower than better than average points out that they think they are just a statistic, the person who was caught. Where others they just haven't been caught yet.

    It clearly speaks to a larger social problem, including the articles main point of the 'better than average' view point. The theory behind that does not work in all countries, it does apply very well to the U.S.A. though and it's just more evidence to a culture value we hold as being out of place.

  5. How can most people really be better than average on many traits? That's contradictory as it defeats the point of an average.

  6. Given that these types of criminals tend to be from areas with high crime, poverty, addiction, abuse, and other significant societal issues, the thought that they are average is possibly a fair assessment for the community in which they live.

    This survey is a waste of time in that there is no control for variables, subjective nature of the results, etc.

  7. Lol fuck that.. give them a therapist in prison, they still deserve punishment if they commit a crime

  8. There's some things wrong with this study. A man in jail for assault doesn't imply honesty issues as the research suggested. Rather, a man who admits to a jailable offence will go to jail 100% of the time, whereas someone who would lie about it has a chance of avoiding prison.

    Even measurements of violence are skewed, as violence is something we measure on a scale and with caveats. A man might go to jail for a violent act, but the same act may well be performed by police with impunity as we effectively sanction police violence under many situations, even ones that violate our stated laws.

  9. Consider the following image:

    More than half of the results were above the average (aka mean) but were dragged down because the low values were more extreme (even though they occurred less often). This is not contradictory, it's how averages have always worked, and the whole point of averages is to have a weighted measure of the most typical result.

    If you want to have 50% above and 50% below your number of interest, you should look at the median instead, which usually has a different value to the mean. Mean is used more often because it gives a better sense of weighting; the median doesn't tell you whether the data are skewed negatively or positively.

    Let me know if that was unclear in any way, I know it always confuses me!

  10. I do wonder if the criminals in general feel that they're fairly normal, but were simply the ones who got caught? Most crimes are enver solved; most are probably enver even reported. Perhaps, growing up in a highly criminal environment, they simply assume everyone else is breaking the law all the time and they're just the ones who got into trouble?

  11. Been in Corrections for 20+ years… People don't change until THEY decide to. They only decide to when the pain of remaining they way they are exceeds the pleasure.

  12. Why is there “good reason to assume that the average non-prisoner is more honest and law abiding than the average prisoner”? That's not an assumption I'd make at all. My guess would be that people who go to prison aren't any more unlawful than average – they're just less competent at not getting caught, or didn't show enough remorse (either real or pretended) to keep the other person from pressing charges, or were unlucky enough to wrong someone who is a total asshole. I mean, I've punched or shoved a few people and taken a few things I shouldn't have. The reason I'm not in jail is because they didn't care enough to ruin my life over it.

    My belief may or may not be true, but the researchers didn't rule it out. Why are they just assuming these 85 prisoners are worse people than average simply because they're in prison? If you're trying to do empirical research, that's an insane thing to just assume. What an abysmal failure of so-called research.

  13. true and it might be environmental….I was raised by two people with some sociopathic tendencies and in my forties have just realized what this means in terms of my habit of attracting batterers and sociopaths into my life. I could not figure it out for the longest time. So it might be true that these folks do feel themselves higher rated in these traits than the people they attract into their lives, because they had very poor role models…what is considered the 'average' of moral behavior certainly varies from group to group

  14. A lot of people in jail have cluster B personality disorders like antisocial personality disorder that are associated with grandiose traits. So it makes sense to me that they would rate themselves this way.

  15. The prisoners could be right. A prisoner isn't necessarily automatically less honest or genuine. If anything, they're in prison because they confessed to the crime because of moral turbulence. While the “non-criminals” just never got caught because they're such good liars and psychopaths.

  16. This exactly describes an ex-friend of mine who is now in jail. He'd conned a number of his friends, was repeatedly arrested for driving drunk, and always challenging the law to fatten his wallet. He was so gifted at lying that he would believe his own lies, I was often disturbed by his ability to fabricate and believe elaborate events or conversations which never occurred so that he could protect himself from admitting fault or guilt. Yes, he believed he was as kind as he was really dangerous. Cutting ties with him was a delicate procedure.

  17. Why are you trying to help them?

    Depending on the crime, it's not help they need, it's punishment. Consequence. This is what you get for your actions

  18. Except as whole, that has never worked on humans. We rely on positive reinforcement on a biological level much, much more than negative. Negative actually usually has the exact opposite effect. Also, the vast majority of criminals are non violent. Drugs, petty crimes, misunderstandings, too many fines…. the people you're talking about are both the minority of prisoners and not what prison is for.
    prison makes money for the prison. Thats the only way they do anything beneficcial to our society.

  19. I wish I could upvote this response. Than you for putting my thoughts into eloquent words.

  20. Ive got to say… this is a disgustingly unscientific study… they did nothing to verify the opinions of the prisoners; no tests or experiments to disprove their honesty or the like, nothing to see the ratio for honesty to perceived honesty; there was absolutlely no verification that these men were dishonest or disloyal. The guy sstanding up for the pretty girl at the bar when she's being harassed may well end up in this study, and they'd never know. Fact is, this study uses the knowledge that they're in prison to assume they're dishonest. Thats a terribly unscientific and slightly disgusting assumtion which turns this entire study into nothing than meaningless fluff; they missed their chance to make a real study by skipping a step. This whole study is meaningless.
    btw, ive met more serious criminals and killers that have never been caught than the reverse. I used to hitch in california, and most of the time, the people who you really need to fear, have only been arrested for stupid, little shit.

  21. Here is how statistics work.
    you have a group of figures and you need an average. Lets say there's five people, they all love apples… they eat at least one a day, and you need the average for the week. Here's their numbers for the week;
    Skipping how much they love apples, you find the average like this;
    All added ffigures devided by number of figures.
    So we've got i believe 55 apples in the week devided by the five people, 11. Now, if two of those people, say 12 and 17, were changed to say… 22 and 26 repspectfully…. its now 75. By five thays 15. So all the sudden the average is 15 apples a week… see where this goes?

  22. And now it's big businrss, with many prisons owned and operated by private corporations.

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