Discover more from Beyond Self Improvement
Are We All Above Average?
Why we consistently think we’re better than we are
Hello & welcome to another edition of Beyond Self Improvement! Last Wednesday, I published The Pursuit of Genuine Joy.
A warm welcome to the ahem, 0 new subscribers to Beyond Self Improvement since Saturday. If you aren’t already, join 605 lovely people by subscribing now.
Summary in Three Sentences
Most of us operate under the illusion that we are better than we are. This cognitive distortion has far-reaching implications for our lives. However, aligning our perceptions more closely with reality through self-awareness leads to clearer understanding and better outcomes.
Have you ever thought you were more intelligent or better looking than others?
Well, it turns out you're not alone. Most people think they’re better than most people at most things most of the time. So common is this phenomenon that social psychologists even have a name for it: They call it illusory superiority.
What exactly is illusory superiority? In a nutshell, it’s the tendency to overestimate our qualities and abilities in relation to others. In other words, the average person thinks they’re above average. This phenomenon affects nearly everyone, including the smartest and most accomplished. According to studies, over 90% of people suffer from illusory superiority in one form or another.
So, why should we care? While the illusion of superiority can bolster self-worth, it's vital to recognize its drawbacks. From decision-making to relationships, this overestimation can skew perceptions and choices. The good news is that we can learn to recognize and overcome this bias with awareness and understanding.
Illusory superiority helps explain why when we do something good, we take credit for it. And when we do something terrible, we justify it with, “Everybody does it.” When we’re less skilled at something, we often think, “I may not be great, but at least I’m better than so and so.”
This phenomenon may illustrate why a guest at a Minnesota resort once said to a former co-worker, “Don’t you know who I am? I’m Charles Schwab’s brother!” His comment reminds me of Cartman in South Park shouting to his peers, “You will respect my authoritay!”
This makes us think we’re superior to others in various ways. According to multiple studies, we think we’re better drivers, have more sex, donate more money, are more competent and honest, have better relationships, and are better at picking stocks than all the other schlubs.
“All the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” - Fictional town of Lake Wobegon
Let’s look at some areas where we commonly fall prey to illusory superiority.
Sports. A 2016 study revealed that 26% of parents hoped their child would become a professional athlete. In truth, about 1 in 168 high school baseball players will be drafted by a Major League Baseball team, and just 1 in 2,451 men’s high school basketball players will get drafted by a National Basketball Association team. As talented as you may think your little Emma or Jayden are, the likelihood of them becoming a pro athlete is infinitesimal.
Business, writing, and peers. Overestimating ourselves may explain why 500,000 startups are founded annually, yet only 1 in 5 will succeed long-term. Or why 80% think they have a unique book in them even though 98% of published books will never sell more than 5,000 copies. Unsurprisingly, a study from the 90s revealed that San Franciscans rated themselves as more intelligent, better looking, and fitter than their fellow Americans. As they say, facts are stubborn things.
Driving. Drivers in the United States and Sweden were asked to compare their driving and safety skills to those of others. In the U.S., 93% rated themselves in the top 50% of drivers, compared to 69% in Sweden. As for safety, 88% of survey respondents in the U.S. put themselves in the top 50% compared to 77% in Sweden. Who said humans are rational?
IQ. According to the “Downing effect,” those with a below-average IQ tend to overestimate their IQ, while those with an above-average IQ underestimate it. In other words, the smarter we are, the more likely we are to assess our IQ accurately.
The afterlife. A 1997 US News and World Report asked people who would go to heaven. Of those surveyed, O.J. Simpson was given a 19% chance, Oprah Winfrey a 66% chance, and Mother Theresa a 79% chance. And yet respondents gave themselves a 22% greater chance (87%) of going to heaven than Mother Theresa herself, despite only 67% even believing in heaven. The coup de grâce? Only 18% felt that their friends would join them in heaven.
If that’s not enough, in her Ted Talk on Illusory Superiority, Heba Amzy shares perhaps the most telling study of all. Illusory superiority was explained to an audience of 600. Members were told that overestimating themselves and thinking they were better than others is shared among all people. Despite hearing this, 85% of the audience insisted they were not swayed by illusory superiority, while only 15% admitted. Perhaps the latter had higher IQs.
“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people are so full of doubts.” —Bertrand Russell
The funny thing is, as you read these words, dear reader, you are likely still thinking, “Yeah, but I really am better than others!” The human ego knows no shame.
While overestimating ourselves may be problematic, that doesn’t mean we should start underestimating ourselves. Underestimating may be as harmful as overestimating. After all, illusory superiority helps protect our ego and allows us to feel good about ourselves.
When we underestimate, we can lose our confidence, become depressed, and little by little give up hope of achieving anything in life. The goal is learning to assess our skills, abilities, and qualities accurately, which requires learning to see more objectively.
Here are some practices that have improved the rationality of my thinking.
Say, “I don’t know.” I used to be a know-it-all. Worse, I believed I had to know everything and always argued to be correct. Then, one day, I uttered the words, “I don’t know, " which was liberating. I no longer had to defend my position or argue to be right. Today, I say “I don’t know” regularly. In Buddhism, this is called “don’t know mind.” It’s okay not to know everything.
Heal your wounds. Shame, or the feeling that we are somehow broken, flawed, or deficient, causes the ego to assert itself. When our childhood wounds are healed, the shame dissolves with them, as does the ego’s compulsion to feel superior to others. That little inner voice constantly comparing ourselves to others and striving to be better than them becomes very quiet.
Learn more. The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know about myself, others, and the world around me. Being humbled in this way makes it harder to think we are superior to anyone about anything.
Practice noting. Practicing meditation helps us see life more objectively. A technique I like to use is called noting, which was popularized by Burmese teacher Mahasi Sayadaw.
During meditation, thoughts, images, emotions, and sensory experiences will arise. When a thought interrupts your concentration, it’s easy to become frustrated. Instead, note “thinking, thinking, thinking.” We may get irritated when a loud sound like a garbage truck distracts us. Instead of labeling the garbage truck as noise, note “sound, sound, sound.” A subtle shift can make a big difference.
Over time, noting will help transform your subjectivity into objectivity. In other words, noting trains the mind to see ourselves and the world more impartially, rationally, and sanely.
“True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.” - Socrates
Recognizing our inherent biases, like the pervasive illusion of superiority, is crucial for personal growth. Our internal compass often leans towards self-affirmation, even when faced with contrary evidence. But this cognitive distortion, while comforting, can hinder our relationships, decisions, and understanding of the world and ourselves.
Adopting practices like "don't know mind” and noting can help align our self-perception with reality. In this way, we foster self-growth and build healthier relationships and a more compassionate society.
Keep seeking truth,
When you’re ready, I can help you transform chronic stress and worry into ongoing calm—making you feel in control in 90 days. Schedule a free, 30-minute discovery call today.
☕️ Or if you want to grab coffee or tea in Silicon Valley, let me know when you're in the area.