Two new studies find that we often think of ourselves as both morally superior and less biased than other people.
By Tom Jacobs
Many chuckled when Donald Trump proclaimed “I am the least racist person you have ever met.” From all indications, this not a man with much interest in self-knowledge.
But don’t get too smug. Decades of psychological research reveal that, in fact, most of us strongly believe in our own superiority.
The latest evidence comes in the form of two newly published studies, which find we consider ourselves both more virtuous and less biased than others.
“Moral superiority is a uniquely strong and prevalent form of ‘positive illusion,’” Royal Holloway University of London psychologists Ben Tappin and Ryan McKay write in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
Their study featured 270 adults recruited online. Each was presented with a list of 30 traits: 10 representing agency (hard-working, knowledgeable, competent), 10 representing sociability (cooperative, warm, easy-going), and 10 reflecting moral character (honest, fair, principled).
Participants were asked to judge the extent to which each trait described both themselves and “the average person.” They also noted how desirable they considered each to be.
“Virtually all individuals irrationally inflated their moral qualities,” the researchers report. What’s more, the magnitude of their misjudgment “was greater than that observed in other domains of self-enhancement.”
Our strong belief in our own specialness gets in the way of the sort of honest self-assessment that could make us better people.
Oddly, the researchers also found this belief that we’re morally superior to others was not associated with self-esteem. So it’s not clear what benefit it provides.
In the second study, psychologists Jennifer Howell of Ohio State University and Kate Ratliff of the University of Florida used data from the Project Implicit website, on which people take tests that reveal their unconscious biases. (Ratliff is executive director of the project.) They focused on visitors who took the weight-related test.
Participants began by indicating the extent to which they themselves, and (in their opinion) people in general, strongly prefer thin people to fat ones. To get at their unconscious biases, they were then asked “to quickly categorize silhouettes of thin and overweight bodies,” while simultaneously classifying descriptive words as “good” or “bad.”
After being informed that the results indicated some degree of anti-fat prejudice — which contradicted their belief that they were less biased than others — participants indicated whether they felt the test was valid.
“People were somewhat defensive overall,” the researchers report in the British Journal of Social Psychology. The most defensive were those who strongly believed they were less prejudiced than others; they largely rejected data that contradicted that pleasing self-assessment. A second study confirmed this pattern.
Belief that we are less biased than our friends and neighbors “can help people feel good about themselves,” Howell and Ratliff write. “Nevertheless, these views may be unrealistic, and may even prevent people from taking action to combat their prejudices and stereotypes.”
“Educating people about bias may be key,” the researchers conclude — although they quickly concede that “people who have strong better-than-average beliefs may be the least open to such feedback.”
And so our strong belief in our own specialness gets in the way of the sort of honest self-assessment that could make us better people. As Trump would say: sad.