Skip to main content

Back before he was exiled, Garrison Keillor used to regularly remind us that, in Lake Wobegon, "all of the children are above average." This observation wasn't backed by actual data (the community being fictional and all), but new research suggests he wasn't far off the mark. It reports that, in a large national survey, 65 percent of Americans expressed the belief that they are smarter than a typical person. To no one's surprise, this bias was stronger among men than women.

"Americans' self-flattering beliefs about intelligence are alive and well, several decades after their discovery was first reported," writes a research team led by psychologist Patrick Heck, a postdoctoral fellow at Geisinger Health System. "A tendency to overrate one's cognitive abilities may be a stable feature of human psychology."

The study, published in the online journal PLoS One, featured 2,821 American adults—1,838 contacted in a 2009 telephone survey, and 983 recruited online in 2011. Nested in a series of items "regarding popular myths about memory, attention, and the brain" was the simple statement: "I am more intelligent than the average person."

Participants chose one of five possible responses: strongly agree, mostly agree, mostly disagree, strongly disagree, or don't know. They also provided information on their age, race, income, and ethnicity.

Taking those demographic factors into account, the researchers came up with a "nominal nationally representative sample" of American residents. Crunching the numbers, they discovered we're mightily impressed with our cognitive skills.

"Combining both surveys, 65 percent of participants agreed with the statement 'I am more intelligent than the average person,' with 20 percent choosing 'strongly agree' and 45 percent choosing 'mostly agree,'" they report.

If you exclude those who answered "don't know," almost three times as many people agreed with the proposition than disagreed (65 percent to 23 percent).

Heck and his colleagues found that, while women and men chose "mostly agree" in similar proportions, men were much more likely to answer "strongly agree." Twenty-nine percent of men, but only 16 percent of women, chose that self-aggrandizing assessment in the telephone survey; online, men were twice as likely to make that choice (24 percent vs. 12 percent of women).

Younger Americans (those under age 45) were more likely than older ones to strongly agree with the flattering statement (although "mostly agree" numbers were similar for young and old).

Looking at education level, 73 percent of people with college degrees asserted they were more intelligent than average.

"Given that the average college graduate has an IQ of approximately 13 to 15 points above the population mean," the researchers write, "college graduates in our sample actually slightly underestimated their relative intelligence," while less-educated people tended to overestimate theirs.

The data does not explain why people hold these ego-boosting beliefs, but the researchers offer some theories. "Participants may conceive of intelligence more broadly, and select that aspect of intelligence where they believe they outperform others," they write.

In addition, "people may choose different baselines when comparing themselves to the average person," they note. It's conceivable that they reasonably feel they are more intelligent than most "based on who they encounter regularly."

One other finding of interest: Race wasn't a significant factor in these rosy self-assessments, in that "white and nonwhite Americans showed similar tendencies to believe they were smarter than average."

Finally—something we can all agree on!