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Sure, I'm Behind Bars, But I'm Still Morally Superior to You

The belief we’re better than the average person holds true even for convicts.
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(Photo: BortN66/Shutterstock)

(Photo: BortN66/Shutterstock)

As Garrison Keillor fans are well aware, all of the children in Lake Wobegon are above average. But newly published research suggests the presumption of exceptionality is hardly confined to rural Minnesota.

In fact, it is so widespread, it even applies to a most unexpected population: prison inmates.

A survey of convicts serving time in an English prison found they rated themselves higher than the average person on a range of positive characteristics, including morality and kindness. A research team led by University of Southampton psychologist Constantine Sedikides reports the one exception was law-abidingness—“for which they viewed themselves as average.”

Apparently the authorities can take away your freedom, but not your inflated feelings of self-worth.

Maintaining a positive self-image seems to be a basic emotional need (at least for Westerners), and it doesn't disappear when the cell door slams shut.

The study, published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, was based on a survey of 79 convicted felons serving time in a prison in the south of England. Each prisoner filled out a questionnaire in which they were asked to rate on a five-point scale how they compared to the “average prisoner” on a series of positive characteristics: moral, kind to others, trustworthy, honest, dependable, compassionate, generous, law-abiding, and self-controlled.

They then filled out a second survey, in which they rated how they compared to “the average member of the community” on all of the above characteristics.

The results suggest low self-esteem is not among the prisoners’ problems. Compared to their fellow inmates, “they rated themselves as more moral, kinder to others, more self-controlled, more law-abiding, more compassionate, more generous, more dependable, more trustworthy, and more honest.”

In addition, “Participants rated themselves as better than the average community member on all traits, with the exception of law-abidingness.” On that last point, the researchers report, “they rated themselves as equally law abiding” as the average person, “which may be the most surprising of all, given their incarcerated status.”

This provides evidence of the robust—and groundless—nature of the “better-than-average effect.”

“There is usually no unequivocal way to assess whether or not people are better than average on a particular trait,” the researchers note. In this case, however, it seems self-evident that your average convict isn’t more honest or trustworthy than the typical man in the street, in spite of his insistence to the contrary.

This self-deception does have its upside, according to Sedikides and his colleagues. “Unrealistically favorable self-views can instill the confidence needed to persevere at difficult tasks,” they note.

On the other hand, they add, people who “fail or refuse to recognize” where they fall short “will be unlikely to rectify their faults.”

“In the same way that people with low abilities fail to apprehend the criteria that are required for success,” the researchers conclude, “the prisoners in our study seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be law abiding.”

Either that, or they hold an extremely cynical view of human nature. Perhaps they’re convinced that everyone’s a crook, and they just happened to be caught—which was so unfair, since they’re actually more honest than most!

This clearly delusional attitude reflects, at least in part, what the researchers call “motivated self-enhancement.” Maintaining a positive self-image seems to be a basic emotional need (at least for Westerners), and it doesn't disappear when the cell door slams shut.