A Philosopher's Blog

The Better than Average Delusion

Posted in Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on March 28, 2014
Average Joe copy

Average Joe copy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One interesting, but hardly surprising, cognitive bias is the tendency of a person to regard herself as better than average—even when no evidence exists for that view. Surveys in which Americans are asked to compare themselves to their fellows are quite common and nicely illustrate this bias: the overwhelming majority of Americans rank themselves as above average in everything ranging from leadership ability to accuracy in self-assessment.

Obviously enough, the majority of people cannot be better than average—that is just how averages work. As to why people think the way they do, the disparity between what is claimed and what is the case can be explained in at least two ways. One is another well-established cognitive bias, namely the tendency people have to believe that their performance is better than it actually is. Teachers get to see this in action quite often—students generally believe that they did better on the test than they actually did. For example, I have long lost count of people who have gotten Cs or worse on papers who say to me “but it felt like an A!” I have no doubt that it felt like an A to the student—after all, people tend to rather like their own work. Given that people tend to regard their own performance as better than it is, it certainly makes sense that they would regard their abilities as better than average—after all, we tend to think that we are all really good.

Another reason is yet another bias: people tend to give more weight to the negative over the positive. As such, when assessing other people, we will tend to consider negative things about them as having more significance than the positive things. So, for example, when Sally is assessing the honesty of Bill, she will give more weight to incidents in which Bill was dishonest relative to those in which he was honest. As such, Sally will most likely see herself as being more honest than Bill. After enough comparisons, she will most likely see herself as above average.

This self-delusion probably has some positive effects—for example, it no doubt allows people to maintain a sense of value and to enjoy the smug self-satisfaction that they are better than most other folks. This surely helps people get by day-to-day.

There are, of course, downsides to this—after all, a person who does not do a good job assessing himself and others will be operating on the basis of inaccurate information and this rarely leads to good decision making.

Interestingly enough, the better-than-average delusion holds up quite well even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary. For example, the British Journal of Social Psychology did a survey of British prisoners asking them to compare themselves to other prisoners and the general population in terms of such traits as honesty, compassion, and trustworthiness. Not surprisingly, the prisoners ranked themselves as above average. They did, however, only rank themselves as average when it came to the trait of law-abidingness. This suggests that reality has some slight impact on people, but not as much as one might hope.

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13 Responses

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  1. Anonymous said, on March 28, 2014 at 8:34 am

    There must be some mistake. I was looking up the definition of the word “irony” and was redirected here.

  2. TJB said, on March 28, 2014 at 8:56 am

    What do you expect when there has been such a focus on “self esteem” over the past 30 years? I would be willing to bet that white men suffer least from these delusions because nobody cares about their self esteem.

    Actually, the fact that nobody tries to “help” white men is a huge advantage.

  3. apollonian said, on March 28, 2014 at 11:36 am

    Establishment Wants People Self-Righteous, Willing To Kill, NOT Truthful

    Everyone is surely good and above average at some things, so if these things are considered important then folks might think they’re generally above average, including in other things too.

    Reality itself is difficult thing for people to grasp–is it objective?–even if it is, it’s only an assumption, and lots of folks overlook this assumption cannot be proven, yet then must serve as proof for other things. If reality is objective, is it determined?–this isn’t too easy either. And observe most emphasis is put on being “good,” hence obedient.

    For that’s the way to control and influence folks,–moralism/Pharisaism–esp. when humans are over-populated as they are now, having ridden the great prosperity since the high middle age, all gov. and hence thought-control edjumacation now pushing “morality,” etc.

    As folks are programmed upon this moralism/Pharisaism it isn’t too easy to think otherwise as “good-evil” invokes subjectivism and free-will which doesn’t easily abide objectivity and determinism.

    And when establishment pushes self-righteousness–which is all moralism/Pharisaism is–how is it surprising people act like it?–self-righteous and sanctimonious. That’s purpose of holohoax lies (see Codoh.com, Ihr.org, and ZundelSite.org for expo/ref.) of the Jews, for example: it justifies mass-murdering Palestinians and Muslims–same w. the idiot “Judeo-Christians” for slaughtering Iraqis, Libyans, and Syrians now, and Iranians in the future.

    Greatest enemy of (Christian) TRUTH is “good,” never doubt, never forget–how the road to heck is paved.

  4. magus71 said, on March 28, 2014 at 4:42 pm

    Mike missed a telling fact: Prisoners not only rate themselves better than average, their self-esteem is higher than the average person who isn’t in prison.

    Charles Murray has a new book coming out: One of the chapters is called: “The future belongs to the unentitled.” He’s right. To not be babied is a massive advantage.

    • TJB said, on March 28, 2014 at 9:40 pm

      Murray is absolutely right.

      • WTP said, on March 29, 2014 at 10:29 am

        I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. Dunning-Kruger.

        • magus71 said, on March 30, 2014 at 5:59 am

          Oddly enough:

          “Studies on the Dunning–Kruger effect tend to focus on American test subjects. A study on some East Asian subjects suggested that something like the opposite of the Dunning–Kruger effect may operate on self-assessment and motivation to improve.[13] East Asians tend to underestimate their abilities, and see underachievement as a chance to improve themselves and get along with others.”


          • TJB said, on March 30, 2014 at 9:24 am

            The effects of DK are probably not all negative.

            • magus71 said, on March 30, 2014 at 12:08 pm

              Probably not, and there’s the usual problem with figuring out if this is cause or effect.

              That said, I remember when I went to the US Border Patrol Academy, (that’s how I got into law enforcement) and we were required to learn Spanish. Being from Maine, I could barely count to 3 in Spanish when I got there, and I assumed learning a new language would be like my college experience; never crack a book or study and pass. I quickly learned I was wrong. Through high school and college, I often heard how bright I was, and I think this was detrimental to me, as if that was enough to succeed. I struggled mightily in Spanish until the second half of the academy where I figured out nightly studying made a huge difference. It was actually a turning point for me. Hard work trumps lazy talent every time.

              DK is likely the symptom of a greater problem, not the cause.

            • T. J. Babson said, on March 30, 2014 at 1:58 pm

              I was thinking DK might explain why Americans are not so cowed by authority. Like climate scientists, for example.

  5. WTP said, on March 29, 2014 at 11:11 am

    This self-delusion probably has some positive effects—for example, it no doubt allows people to maintain a sense of value and to enjoy the smug self-satisfaction that they are better than most other folks.

    Looking forward to Mike’s upcoming essay on self-awareness. And yes, that’s an actual ad hominem. See the difference?

  6. Someone said, on April 29, 2014 at 9:45 pm

    “The majority of people cannot be better than average—that is just how averages work.” That’s not quite true. For example, the majority of people have an above average number of eyes, and an above average number of legs (vast majority have two, whereas some have one or none – the average is in between 0 and 2, so having 2 puts you above average).

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