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High five People Really Do Think They're Better Than They Are

In general, 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 research suggests.

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 Health.

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.

"Most of us," he said "are pretty typical."

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