Science Says Stop Infecting Other People With the Better-Than-Average Effect

You’re probably familiar with the famous survey that reported that more than 80 percent of respondents said they were above-average drivers, even though that’s mathematically impossible. And even though all of the respondents had, at some point in their lives, been injured in car accidents. (In fact, another study found that fewer than 1 percent of respondents considered themselves “worse than average.”)

Findings like that are easy to laugh at, until you realize that most people think they’re above average at almost everything. A meta-analysis of a number of studies shows that people rate themselves as above average in creativity, intelligence, dependability, athleticism, honesty, friendless, and on and on. Provide people with a survey about almost any trait and the vast majority will rate themselves above average.

Social psychologists call it the better-than-average effect. Ask me to rate myself — in anything — in terms of basically anything, and I’ll be convinced I’m above average. (Even though I’m clearly not.)

Granted, a little confidence is a good thing, as long as that self-belief is based on actual achievements, actual experiences, and actual results. Belief based on evidence is confidence.

Belief based on nothing but belief is arrogance — and unfortunately, arrogance is infectious.

In a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers conducted two experiments. In the first, participants were asked to look at photos of faces and guess the individual’s personalities based on their facial expressions. Then they were asked to rate how well they did compared with the rest of the participants. (Basically, the “better-than-average” question.)

Then participants were placed in pairs and asked to perform the same task. 

Here’s the interesting part: When a relatively humble participant — someone who had rated themselves relatively poorly compared with the other participants after the first experiment — was paired with an overconfident participant, they rated themselves much more highly; they became a lot more “better-than-average.” 

Even though nothing had changed except their exposure to someone else’s overconfidence.

In the second study, participants asked to guess a person’s weight from a photo who were exposed to an extremely overconfident person’s responses tended to increase their rating of their own abilities by 17 percent. On the flip side, participants exposed to realistic responses tended to underestimate their abilities by 11 percent.

In short, being around overconfident people — even if you know they’re way too confident — tends to make you overconfident, too. 

Maybe that’s why, as Inc. colleague Jessica Stillman writes, Jeff Bezos doesn’t see smart people as those who are often right. Instead, he thinks the smartest people admit they are wrong and change their opinions — often.

According to Bezos, “the smartest people are constantly revising their understanding, reconsidering a problem they thought they’d already solved. They’re open to new points of view, new information, new ideas, contradictions, and challenges to their own way of thinking.”

Avoiding the “better-than-average” effect and embracing genuine intellectual humility pays off in two ways. This Duke University study shows that the more willing you are to entertain the possibility you might be wrong, the better choices you tend to make. 

And the less likely you are to “infect” the people around you with the kind of unreasonable overconfidence that leads to making uninformed and unwise decisions.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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