Are you Average?

The last thirty years of research shows just about all of us think we are more competent than our coworkers, more ethical than our friends, friendlier than the general public, more intelligent than our peer, more attractive than the average person, less prejudiced than people in our region, younger-looking than people the same age, better drivers than most people we know, better children than our siblings, and that we will live longer than the average lifespan.

(As you just read that list, maybe you said to yourself, “No, I don’t think I’m better than everyone.” So you think you’re more honest with yourself than the average person? You are not so smart.)

No one, it seems, believes he or she is part of the population contributing to the statistics generating averages. You don’t believe you are an average person, but you do believe everyone else is. This tendency, which springs from self-serving bias, is called the illusory superiority effect.

In 1999, Justin Kruger at the New York University Stern School of Business showed illusory superiority was more likely to manifest in the minds of subject when they were told ahead of time a certain task was easy. When they rated their abilities after being primed to think the task was considered simple, people said they performed better than average. When he then told people where were about to perform a task that was difficult they rated their performance as being below average even when it wasn’t . No matter the actual difficulty, just telling people ahead of time how hard the undertaking would be changed how they saw themselves in comparison to an imagined average. To defeat feelings of inadequacy, you first have to imagine a task as being simple and easy. If you can manage to do that, illusory superiority takes over.

David McRaney, You are Not so Smart