The Most Irrational Self-Enhancing Bias of All: Belief In Our Moral Superiority

Posted on November 30, 2017

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A study by Ben Tappin and Ryan McKay, published in the Journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science, analyzes our inflated sense of personal superiority when it comes to moral qualities, such as honesty and trustworthiness.

But why? Why should the 'better-than-average' effect be so evident when it comes to moral traits? The study found that the reason being is our irrationality when it comes to the evaluation of moral traits. They write that moral superiority "appears to be a uniquely strong and prevalent form of positive illusion".

Showing a list of 30 traits to a total of 270 respondents, they wee asked to rate how much each trait applied to them versus to the "average person" and to also rate the desirability of the traits. Ten of these traits were like to sociability (such as being sociable, cooperative, rude or uptight), whilst another ten linked to agency (such as being determined, creative, unmotivated or illogical) and the final ten were linked to morality (such as being principled, fair, manipulative or deceptive).

As hypothesized, the respondents gave themselves a higher score than that of the 'average person' for almost all the desirable traits, with "being sociable" a notable exception, and lower scores than that of the 'average person' for undesirable traits. The researchers boiled it down to the reason of "self-enhancement" which they asserted that the participants were all guilty of. However, they go on to add that if you are a particularly low or high scorer on certain traits, the "self-enhancement" can be rationally explained. We tend to be less certain about what other people are like, thus, comparing them to ourselves and forming less extreme judgements about their scores makes more sense.

Researchers further tested this, categorizing irrational self enhancement as the tendency to inflate their own scores relative to the 'average person' on a given desirable trait, whereas across the board that individual's personality is very average. And rational justification is when someone has an overall more atypical personality, and infers that there are more extreme than average on various traits.

Following their determinants on what is rational and what is not, researchers found that self-enhancement pertaining to sociability was mostly quite rational, while self-enhancement related to agency was less rational. The most irritation - least justified - of all was moral self-enhancement. It was noted that "virtually all individuals inflated their moral qualities, and the absolute and relative magnitude of this irrationality was greater than that in the other domains of positive self-evaluation".

From what we know about the prevailing theory of self-serving positive illusions, it is safe to say that we hold "inaccurate, overly rosy views of ourselves" because they tend to improve the way we feel about ourselves. We feel better and it boosts our psychological wellbeing. This is shown consistently. even in the current study, where greater irrational social and agency self-enhancement had a relationship with a higher self-esteem.

One thing the study did not explain was why we are the most irrational when it comes to downplaying the moral qualities of others compared to our own, which also came as a surprise to the researchers. A possible evolutionary reason would be that, from a survival perspective, the assumption that someone is less trustworthy than you, unless proven otherwise, just to be safe. However, this would need further exploration to reach any definitive explanation.

Digging into our inflated beliefs that we're virtuous, just and moral in part is important as these beliefs - against the inflated ideas of our own determination or, say, cooperativeness - are likely to contribute to the severity of human conflict. When two opposing sides are convinced of their own righteousness, the escalation of violence is more probable, whilst the odds of resolution stay dangerously low.

Thus, the illusion of moral superiority is something that should come into mind especially whenever there is a conflict, where both sides are convinced that 'they are right'. Think about the irrational self-enhancing bias - are you REALLY right?

Category(s):Other, Self-Confidence, Self-Esteem

Source material from Research Digest

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