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.”
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
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