In the privacy of your own mind, do you believe you’re a better person than everyone else? Well, that’s pretty much what the rest of us think, too.
A recent study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science shows that people strongly believe that they are just, virtuous and moral, and uniformly see others as inferior. People also tend to rate themselves more highly than others in modesty.
The study, first published in October and resurfaced this week in Scientific American, showed that most people fail to use reason when evaluating character traits in themselves and others.
“The individuals in our sample consistently judged themselves to be superior to the average person,” Ben Tappin, a psychologist at the University of London and the study’s lead author, told The Huffington Post.
For the study, participants were asked to rate the extent to which 30 different personality traits were present in themselves, the average person, and a “socially desirable” ideal. This included traits involved in morality (like sincerity and honesty), sociability (like friendliness), and personal agency (like competence and creativity). Then, the researchers conducted a test to determine how rational the participants were in their reasoning.
Here’s what rational thinking on the matter would look like: Most of the time, most people are in the majority. In order to make accurate judgments about others, it would be reasonable to project what we know about ourselves. Therefore, we’re rational when we acknowledge how similar we are to other people.
But there’s a caveat in this for people who are truly unusual. If a person rates themselves in an atypical way, then they are objectively unusual. So, in that case, it would make sense for them to rate themselves differently from others.
“Those individuals who were highly atypical had more ‘room’ for rational self-enhancement because their own traits provided a poor guide as to what the average person was like,” Tappin said.
People were most likely to be irrational when it came to traits that they considered desirable ― especially moral traits, the researchers found.
This can be explained in part by what psychologists call the “self-enhancement effect.”
“Self-enhancement has been studied for decades, and refers to the phenomenon whereby people perceive themselves to be superior to the average person,” Tappin said. “The classic case was documented ... back in 1981 in the case of driving ability. As we discuss in the paper, the effect has since been observed in many other domains including personality traits, and intelligence.”
One possible explanation for how these positive illusions came to be is the idea that they confer psychological benefits, like increased confidence and self-esteem, Tappin said. But the researchers found no evidence of this. Instead, they observed that feelings of moral superiority were not associated with high self-esteem.
Falsely imagining ourselves to be morally superior also can result in “moral licensing” ― the tendency for people to feel justified in doing something immoral because they generally feel they behave morally. One study, for instance, showed that people who committed a moral act were more likely to commit an immoral act later the same day (perhaps because they felt entitled to do so).
It’s a good reminder for all of us that thinking you’re a “moral person” and actually behaving morally aren’t the same thing.