People Really Do Think They're Better Than They Are
people see themselves as kind, generous and fair--even a step above the
less-altruistic masses. And a lot of these people are fooling themselves, new
Researchers have consistently found that the average
person considers his moral character to be stronger than his neighbor's. One
question has been whether these "holier- than-thou" types are underestimating
others or overestimating themselves. Four new studies of Cornell University
students suggest it is the latter.
"People consistently overestimate
themselves, but they're pretty accurate about other," David Dunning, a
professor of psychology at the Ithaca, New York, university told Reuters
In several experiments, Dunning and colleague Nicholas Epley
found that while students did a fine job of predicting whether their classmates
would act selflessly, they painted unrealistic portraits of themselves. The
researchers report their findings in the December issue of the Journal of
Personality and Social Psychology.
Dunning and Epley had different
groups of students participate in experiments that tested how they perceived
themselves and others, and whether these perceptions matched their actions. For
example, students were asked to predict whether they would buy at least one
flower in order to benefit a charity. They also predicted what percentage of
their peers would fork over the cash.
While 83% said they would buy a
flower, they thought far less of their peers--on average, students said 56% of
their classmates would donate to the charity. When it came time to put their
money where their mouths were, however, only half of the students who said they
would buy a flower did so.
When it comes to predicting what others will
do, Dunning explained, people necessarily draw upon what they have observed of
the "average" person. When people have to assess themselves, he said, they tend
to "spin stories" that help them excuse their past transgressions and focus on
the good things they have done.
Dunning said he was surprised by the
accuracy of the students' predictions for others. While he thought the students
would be overly cynical about their peers' moral character, they turned out to
be on the mark. Instead, they overinflated themselves.
That is not to
say people are no good deep down. "A lot of people," Dunning noted, "do act in
moral and altruistic ways."
But a person who puts too much stock in
himself may too harshly judge others. The"cost of overestimating yourself,"
Dunning said, is not realizing that had you been in a certain situation, you
might have done the same thing you consider immoral in others.
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