Nearly two-third of Americans, reports a recent PLOS One article, agree that “I am more intelligent than the average person.”
This self-serving bias—on which I have been reporting for four decades (starting here)—is one of psychology’s most robust and reliable phenomena. Indeed, on most subjective, socially desirable dimensions, most of us see ourselves as better-than-average . . . as smarter, more ethical, more vocationally competent, more charitable, more unprejudiced friendlier, healthier, and more likely to outlive our peers—which calls to mind Freud’s joke about the husband who told his wife, “If one of us dies, I shall move to Paris.”
My own long-ago interest in self-serving bias was triggered by noticing a result buried in a College Board survey of 829,000 high school seniors. In rating themselves on their “ability to get along with others,” 0 percent viewed themselves below average. But a full 85 percent saw themselves as better than average: 60 percent in the top 10 percent, and 25 percent as in the top 1 percent.
As Shelley Taylor wrote in Positive Illusions, “The [self-]portraits that we actually believe, when we are given freedom to voice them, are dramatically more positive than reality can sustain.” Dave Barry recognized the phenomenon: “The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion, economic status, or ethnic background is that deep down inside, we all believe that we are above average drivers.”
Self-serving bias also takes a second form—our tendency to accept more responsibility for our successes than our failures, for our victories than our defeats, and for our good deeds than our bad. In experiments, people readily attribute their presumed successes to their ability and effort, their failures to bad luck or an impossible task. A Scrabble win reflects our verbal dexterity. A loss? Our bad luck in drawing a Q but no U.
Perceiving ourselves, our actions, and our groups favorably does much good. It protects us against depression, buffers stress, and feeds our hopes. Yet psychological science joins literature and religion in reminding us of the perils of pride. Hubris often goes before a fall. Self-serving perceptions and self-justifying explanations breed marital conflict, bargaining impasses, racism, sexism, nationalism, and war.
Being mindful of self-serving bias needn’t lead to false modesty—for example, smart people thinking they are dim-witted. But it can encourage a humility that recognizes our own virtues and abilities while equally acknowledging those of our neighbors. True humility leaves us free to embrace our special talents and similarly to celebrate those of others.
(For David Myers’ other weekly essays on psychological science and everyday life visit TalkPsych.com)