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March 3, 2010

Science Behind 'Holier-Than-Thou'

Scientists Break Down the Superiority Complex

By Lee Dye
ABC News
March 2010

Be honest about it. Deep down inside, you really do see yourself as morally superior to the average Joe.

It turns out that you've got a lot of company. Most of us think we are above average in a lot of things, especially when it comes to morality, says David Dunning, professor of psychology at Cornell University.

People see themselves as being fairer, more altruistic, more self-sacrificing, more moral than most others, according to numerous studies, Dunning says.

In short, most of us think we really are "holier than thou," although we may not be willing to admit it. Most of us know we wouldn't do the awful things that set us apart from those ordinary people who stumble along the way — all those folks who are just average.

There's just one problem. Most of us can't be above average. By its definition, average is the mathematical median, so the majority can't be either above or below average.

So if most people see themselves as better than the average person, they have to be making one of two mistakes: Either they think they're a lot better than they really are, or those other folks out there aren't as bad as they seem.

Dunning and a graduate psychology student, Nick Epley, set out to find out which error we are making. Are we really as good as we think we are?

Misjudging Ourselves

In a word, no. That's according to their evidence, published in a recent issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The two set up a series of studies on the Cornell campus and got very "robust" results, according to Epley, who designed the experiments.

The participants were asked to predict what they and others would do in certain circumstances. In most cases, the participants predicted they would do the right thing a lot more often than their peers.

However, when the participants found themselves confronting those circumstances in the real world, they didn't do nearly as well as they had predicted. But they were right on the mark when it came to predicting what others would do.

So the error appears to be in how we perceive ourselves, not how we see others, the researchers conclude.

For example, each year the Cornell campus has a charity drive, called Daffodil Day, when students sell daffodils to raise money for the American Cancer Society. About a month before the drive, Epley asked about 250 students in a classroom if they would buy a daffodil during the drive.

"Over 80 percent said they would buy a daffodil," Dunning says. But they predicted that only about half of the other students in the room would be generous enough to buy one.

A couple of days after the drive, the researchers returned to the same classroom and asked the students how many had bought a daffodil.

"It turned out that only 43 percent of the people had," Dunning says. "That's close to what people had said about others, but its way off from what they had said about themselves."

In another experiment, conducted prior to the November national election, 84 percent of the participants said they would vote, but they expected only about 67 percent of their peers to vote.

"The actual rate of voting was 68 percent," Dunning says. Again, they had their peers down pat, but overestimated their own sense of civic responsibility.

We Are What We Hear

One can argue over whether voting has anything to do with morality, or whether buying a plastic daffodil is really an expression of personal ethics. Who's to say what's right or wrong?

The definition of morality is highly "idiosyncratic," Dunning says. We tend to see things as moral if they are the kind of things we do. If we give to charity, then giving is a moral obligation. Likewise if we consider ourselves honest, or loyal, or altruistic, or religious.

Our sense of morality, then, becomes an expression of ourselves.

But that doesn't explain why we seem to think we're so much better, so much "holier," than we really are.

Dunning says one reason our egos are inflated is we get a lot of positive feedback from our peers. Even if some people think you're "a jerk," he says, they aren't likely to say that to your face.

Instead, we're often told how neat we are, at least by our friends, so we tend to believe we are doing the right things. We're nice people, after all.

So our moral judgments become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If it's the kind of thing we do, it must be moral, or we wouldn't be doing it.

"We define morality by looking at our own behavior," Epley says.

But does believing that we are moral really have any effect on how we live?

Dunning thinks it probably does.

Living Up to Standards

"Once you say you are a moral, wonderful, generous person, you have to live up to those standards," Dunning says. "So even if you have overestimated yourself, you are constrained" by your self image, he adds.

Living in a world with people like that is preferable to living "in a world where people basically say they are selfish jerks," Dunning says, "because then they would be constrained to act like selfish jerks."

But there is a down side to all this self anointed sense of morality, he adds.

"If people think they are morally superior to others, they are going to be too harsh in judging other people," he says.

"They don't realize that in the same situation, they are going to act the same way."

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.