We tend to see ourselves as better than our peers across a whole range of traits and skills. We think we’re more environmentally friendly, morally superior, and more observant than those around us. The bias can even spill over to our perceptions of our loved ones: we overestimate the intelligence of our romantic partners, for instance.
But according to a new study in Psychology and Aging there’s one domain where we don’t see ourselves as “better than average”: remembering other people’s names.
Past work has shown that the better-than-average effect is less likely to occur for tasks that are particularly challenging. Given that older adults experience more memory difficulties, perhaps they would be less likely to believe that their memory abilities are better-than-average than younger people, reasoned the researchers, led by Mary Hargis at Texas Christian University
To see whether this was the case, the team asked 84 participants aged 20-25 and 69 participants aged 60-84 to rate their own abilities and traits compared to others of the same age. Participants were asked about their ability to remember names, scientific terms, historical figures, and locations, as well as their perceptions of their own honesty, leadership ability, ability to get along with others, and capacity for hard work. For each of these skills and traits, participants rated themselves on a scale from 1 (much worse than others of the same age) to 9 (much better than others of the same age); a score of 5 indicated they thought they were average for their age.
Participants also rated how they believed someone would feel if they were to forget that person’s name — and how they would feel if someone else forgot their name.
The team found that the older adults rated themselves as significantly above average on all of the memory skills and traits — except for their ability to remember names. Younger participants also tended to rate themselves as above average, except for name memory, and memory for history and locations.
The fact that both younger and older adults failed to show a better-than-average effect suggests that the pattern of results can’t simply be attributed to memory difficulties that come with age. Instead, we may come to believe that our name memory is no better than that of our peers because errors involving forgetting people’s names are particularly salient and embarrassing: most of us can probably recall an awkward exchange where we forgot someone’s name.
Highlighting just how excruciating that experience can be, participants generally indicated that forgetting someone else’s name would be a more negative experience than someone forgetting their name. In fact, for older adults at least, those who showed greater embarrassment at forgetting someone else’s name, compared to having their own name forgotten, tended to rate their name memory as worse.
It’s not clear why younger adults also failed to show a better-than-average effect for history and location memory, though the authors speculate that a similar process could be at work: perhaps failures of these kinds of memory are more prominent for younger people (if they did poorly in a history exam, for instance).
Of course, the usual caveats apply here: the sample size was pretty small and in this case limited to just younger and older adults, so the study can’t say much about how other age groups might view their memory abilities. Plus, statistically speaking, failing to find a significant effect is not quite the same as proving that there is no effect. So it will be interesting to see whether these effects (or lack thereof) are replicated in further work.
Still, the study raises the intriguing possibility that we may have a more realistic view of our skills when our failures have negative social consequences. “Perhaps if we perceive our memory errors to occur while others are paying attention … we create a more accurate representation of our memory’s fallibility and are less likely to be overconfident in our abilities,” the authors conclude.