Psychological research has found that people, in general, tend to think they’re better than everyone else. People tend to rate themselves as better than most others on many qualities including morality, intelligence, kindness, imagination, health, and driving skill. People even believe they are better than others at predicting the outcome of flipping a coin.
Naturally, most people can’t be better than most people, so a large proportion of the population must be mistaken
Whilst reading all this, I even found myself thinking ‘wow, people are so delusional – I don’t think I’m better than everyone else!’ before realising my own hypocrisy.
It seems that the need to see the self as positive is so implicit that people develop automatic positive reactions towards anything related to the self. It can affect the way we perceive others, even Rasputin, as one study found participants rated him more favourably if they were told they shared the same birthday.
This implicit positive self-regard also seems to impact big life decisions. Studies show that we are more likely to marry people who share our initials and more likely to choose to live in places which are similar to our names (e.g. lots of Marys living in Maryland). There is even a correlation between names and occupation; you’re more likely to be a dentist if you’re called Dennis, and a lawyer if you’re called Lawrence.
We protect high opinions of ourselves with defensive attribution patterns, meaning we are more likely to attribute success internally (e.g. to our skill, effort) and failure externally (e.g. to luck, or an unfair test).
Another study found that participants engaged in motivated scepticism: they would quite readily accept favourable information, such as a positive health diagnosis, with little evidence but would be much more critical when examining unfavourable information, such as a negative health diagnosis.
In addition, people often display unrealistic optimism. When we look to the future we like to imagine plenty of positive events waiting around the corner – but this optimism doesn’t extend to others.
People see future opportunities and positive life events (e.g. promotions, having gifted children) as being more likely for them than for their peers and negative life events (e.g. road accidents, being a victim of crime) as less likely in their future than in their peers’ future. People also tend to feel they have the ability to control largely chance-dependent occurrences in their futures, for example, we think we have greater control when personally throwing a dice than when someone else throws for us.
Now, you might be reading this shaking your head in dismay at this apparent pandemic of self-deception, but actually a lot of psychologists argue that these positive illusions are adaptive and good for our mental and physical health.
For instance, unrealistic optimism could have evolved to motivate us towards future goals. Imagining negative possibilities may serve the purpose of identifying and avoiding risks but fixating on unpleasant outcomes causes negative emotion which could lead to depression and anxiety. On the other hand, imagining an exciting future will encourage people towards uphill struggles with big rewards.
And whilst you might assume having inaccurate self-perceptions would impede personal growth, especially if people attribute failure externally rather than looking internally to improve, change is often generated by positive thoughts and feelings e.g. the excitement of embarking on a new career path.
Accurate perceptions of one’s abilities can be self-limiting, whereas overconfidence can inspire people to take up new challenges and gain new skills
After all, how would anybody ever learn anything if they thought they were only capable of what they could currently do?
Research has consistently demonstrated that the more a person believes they can do something, the more likely they are to succeed and that positive self-conceptions are correlated with working harder and longer on tasks.
Interestingly, positive illusions appear to be missing in those suffering with depression. That’s not to say that depression is caused by accurate self-perceptions, as research has also shown negative biases in depressed individuals. It does, however, suggest that positive illusions may play an important part in maintaining good mental health.
Positive illusions have been correlated with happiness. People who view their future as full of positive events, who have high self-esteem, and who think they have a lot of control over their futures are more likely to report themselves as happy. Some studies suggest that the relationship may even be causal. For example, participants who were led to attribute success to the self and failure to the test they took experienced more positive mood and viewing oneself as better than others has been found to enhance positive mood in depressed patients.
Furthermore, psychologist Shelley Taylor argues that positive illusions foster good relationships, explaining that individuals who lack overly-positive self-perceptions could experience difficulty caring about others because social interactions may cause discomfort through feelings of inadequacy.
Not only do positive illusions appear to contribute to mental health, but they also contribute to physical health. In a long-term study, people who reported feeling optimistic about their health tended to live up to 20 years longer than more realistic people, and people with high self-esteem have better physical health.
Unrealistic optimism also seems to lead to better coping with disease; even after controlling for health habits. Men who acknowledged the consequences of their HIV statues died around nine months earlier than men who held inaccurate beliefs about the possibility of their death.
At a first glance, this research might be quite disheartening. It seems to suggest that in order to be happy and healthy we need to kid ourselves into believing things are better than they actually are, and that if we held more realistic images of ourselves then we would be unhappy.
But don’t panic: it’s not saying that. There’s definitely something positive you can take from this research, especially if you are someone who struggles with being too hard on yourself. And it’s that you should give negative thinking a break, stop worrying about little imperfections or things that could go wrong because it’s healthier and more adaptive to believe in yourself and expect good things to happen.
Even if it seems unrealistic, it definitely has its benefits.