First survey of its kind for 50 years finds most Americans still think they have above average intelligence

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“… the least intelligent tend to be the most overconfident”

By Alex Fradera

A systematic survey in the US of people’s beliefs about their own intelligence – the first for 50 years – has shown that was true then is also the case in the modern era: a majority of people think they are smarter than average. 

The research, led by Patrick Heck from the Geisinger Health System and published in PLOS One, combined an online survey and phone survey, with each involving 750 people reflecting a cross-section of the US population, balanced in terms of sex, age, education levels and race.

Across both surveys, 65 per cent of participants agreed with the statement “I am more intelligent than the average person.” Around 70 per cent of men versus 60 per cent of women made the above-average claim, and a similar pattern was found in the young and old. There were also no clear racial differences.

This research accords with both the half-century old study from the Russell Sage Foundation, and more recent research that suggests there is an overconfidence bias in the general population. The trouble is that most of the work following the Foundation’s study has often come from self-selecting or convenience samples that are unlikely to be representative of the wider population, or from students, who may be special cases, struggling, for instance, to envisage what the average person is like from their campus existence. 

The new surveys also validate another cornerstone of overconfidence research: that the least intelligent tend to be the most overconfident. While university graduates (who are typically one standard deviation higher than average in intelligence) collectively tended to slightly underestimate their intelligence, those participants whose highest qualification was a high school diploma collectively over-shot in estimating theirs. Heck’s team conclude “that American’s self-flattering beliefs about intelligence are alive and well several decades after their discovery was first reported.”

65% of Americans believe they are above average in intelligence: Results of two nationally representative surveys

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

16 thoughts on “First survey of its kind for 50 years finds most Americans still think they have above average intelligence”

  1. How wrong are the 65%? Presumably some of them are correct in self-assessing above average intelligence? What percentage of the general population in fact has above average intelligence?

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    1. In the UK, the percentage of people with above average intelligence is around 5%, in the US there’s a good chance it’s about the same. It says everything that those without education think they’re clever, maybe it’s the US education system which teaches self esteem but not ability to think clearly or evaluate evidence.

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      1. Ummmm, how can only 5% of people be “above average?” With IQ (Intelligent Quotient–an attempt at quantifying intelligence), the median is set at 100. About 2/3 of the population are within 1 standard deviation (between 85 and 115). If you are calling 100 average, then half of people will be above, half will be below. But if you say “average intelligence” is anywhere within 1 standard deviation (anywhere from 85-115), then about 15% of people would be above average (“high IQ”) and 15% would be below average (“low IQ”). About 2.5% of the population will score above 130 (“gifted”), and about 2.5% will score below 70 (“impaired”). So, how wrong are 65%? Well, some of them are right–some of them do have above average intelligence! But most likely only 15% of the total sample are 1 standard deviation or more above average. In that case, about 3/4 of the people who claimed above-average intelligence are wrong.

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      2. Alice N Bob: You are assuming that the distribution of intelligence is a normal distribution and that the word “average” is the same as “mean”. “Average” refers to any of the measures that are used to determine central tendency (i.e. mean, median or mode). Statistically, the article is not specific (and I bet that the survey wasn’t either). Depending on what people mean by “average” can drastically influence what we are talking about here. Depending on the shape of an intelligence distribution curve, it is entirely possible for the median and/or mode to be above the mean. Of course, this article doesn’t discuss any of this, which makes sense as most articles are targeted at people at the lower end of the curve (regardless of it’s shape — LOL).

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  2. College degrees are not the cause or measure of intelligence. People who have actually had their IQ measured and have elevated IQ’s, are often failed by the Government Schools, and choose not to waste their true learning time in college. These folks become inventers, business owners, innovative leaders, even criminals. There is actually a high percentage of high IQ prisoners across the world. This article seems to be weighing intelligence against college degrees, which only measures a few things. For example, it measures willingness to study the things others tell you to believe and regurgitate them onto tests. It shows a willingess to question little, and do what you are told. It demonstrates patient compliance, and willingness to trade years of your life learning what others feel is important. I know many people with tested IQ’s, high scoring, that are more content doing what they prefer to do, self learning and creating on their own. If you measure intelligence by years in formal classrooms, you are failing an entire generation of people of all IQ sizes.

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    1. You are a person after my own heart. I would have said the same thing, being one of those tested and certified gifteds who were completely failed by the education system. I went my own way, and couldn’t be happier 🙂 And of course, I would have said the same thing because I did the research and had copious amounts of data to evaluate on the subject.

      A cheer for the dilettante autodidacts.

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  3. Unfortunately, it seems the people who feel or think this way are usually the ones that become stagnant in the continuation of learning. Those with Narcissistic personality disorder believe they are perfection and no new learning or neuroplasticity takes place. Then there’s that Dunning-Kruger syndrome. If anything, it always seems that those who inflate themselves and their intelligence(s), there’s more than one, actually have very low self-esteem. I’ve been steamrolled enough by them to see how tightly they hold onto all their illusions. Walking away is the only course.

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