More human than thou … or just better? Our motivation to think we’re good trumps our desire to feel human

The dark side of human. The mirror concept. vector illustration
A new critique challenges the claim that we’re so motivated to believe in our essential humanness that we happily endorse ugly parts of our human natures

By Alex Fradera

Most of us have a sense of what it means to be human. Research shows that we agree with each other that traits like friendly, jealous or impatient are more “human” than others like unemotional or selfless. What’s more, we like to see ourselves as human: we care more about human traits and claim to possess them more than other people. In other words, we “self-humanise”, laying claim to the good and the bad as long as they emphasise our own humanity.

But this research on self-humanising presents a conundrum. A different, abundant line of evidence shows that humans bitterly protect a highly positive self-image, supported by cognitive biases that attribute our own failings to circumstances and other people’s to their deficiencies. So, do we really overestimate the bad in ourselves, claiming to be more human, warts and all? According to a critique of the self-humanising field in The Journal of Social Psychology, this is an oversimplification: when it comes to undesirable human traits, we see ourselves as pretty similar to other people.

The researchers, led by Marzena Cypryańska of SWPS University Warsaw, conducted their work with 250 students from universities in Poland, Korea, and Italy. The participants – mostly in their twenties and fairly gender-balanced – rated themselves on 40 different traits relative to other students. Some traits like Sympathetic and Jealous were strongly associated with human nature, others like Selfless and Unemotional were not.

Most previous self-humanising research has compared scores in two different categories, for example finding that people give themselves significantly higher self-ratings than others for negative human traits, but not for non-human negative traits. But Cypryańska’s team pointed out that this approach is problematic because of the kind of rating scales that have been used. Imagine a participant rates themselves on a “human” trait like Jealous using the scale below:

self-humanising scale

Strictly speaking, only a score above 4 would suggest that a participant truly believes they are “more Jealous than” others. However, the way that past research has worked, if a participant gave themselves a 3 on a negative human trait, this would be taken as a significantly higher self-rating than a 2 on a non-human negative trait. But the problem is that feeling “less” strongly that you have less of a trait than others is not the same as believing that you have “more” of it. Cypryańska and her colleagues point out that in their data, participants’ mean self-ratings of their negative traits – both human in nature and otherwise – were never significantly higher than 4.

What’s more, Cypryańska and her team revisited previous work that has reported statistically significant self-humanising for negative human traits using similar rating methods, and the same pattern emerged: that is, participants rarely claimed to have more of negative human traits, they were just less bold in their claims to have less of them. So the evidence doesn’t show people are so motivated to appear human that they happily endorse ugly parts of their human nature.

On the other hand, participants did often rate themselves above the scale midpoint for positive traits, both human nature traits and other positive ones. Rather than proving we associate ourselves with human vices and virtues, these findings can be explained with the well-established Better Than Average effect, where we associate ourselves more with positive attributes, less with negative ones.

It’ll be interesting to see how the self-humanising research body responds to this critique of their methods. Cypryańska’s group are not opposed to the idea that human traits are treated a little differently; perhaps we distance ourselves from our weaknesses, but with less fervour when they stem from a common human heritage. More research would be needed to unpick this. But according to this study, the ways we see ourselves as special have a pecking order. Good first, human later.

Reconsidering research on self-humanizing: The importance of mean comparative judgments

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Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Contributing Writer at BPS Research Digest

3 thoughts on “More human than thou … or just better? Our motivation to think we’re good trumps our desire to feel human”

  1. People show more of their true colors, humanity or lack of it, through the judgements of others. Very rarely can a person judge themselves accurately when put on the spot to fill out these study questionnaires. The only way to get a more accurate depiction of who a person is, is by watching what they do and listening to their judgements of others. Here we almost always see the “do as I say, not as I do” mentality which births what we call hypocrites. That in turn creates a type of amnesia that prevents people (or protects them) from seeing their own character traits and is why they only show when they are judging others. Most times than not, what people say and do are two completely different things and they are on the opposite sides of the humanity spectrum. Another words we have a world full of blind actors wearing stage masks who have no idea who they truly are on the “humanity” spectrum.

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