The better than average effect is even true in prison!
You remember the better than average effect. It’s what makes us evaluate ourselves as better than others. I’m a better driver than the average driver. I’m a better swimmer than other non-competitive swimmers. Or even, I’m a better citizen than those who, unlike me, are not in prison. Yes. “I’m in jail. They are not. But, I am more moral, more kind, more self-controlled, more compassionate, more generous, more dependable, more trustworthy, and even more honest. I am not, however, more law-abiding than those who are not in jail. Because nobody’s perfect.”
Those are the findings of a recent study that presents perhaps the strongest evidence for the better than average effect ever. Even when you are locked up as punishment for a crime, you see yourself as better than other prisoners (even more law-abiding than other prisoners) and better than citizens who are not imprisoned on a number of desirable characteristics. If you want an example, consider the recent lengthy interview with Bernie Madoff. Bernie doesn’t claim to be a great guy, just better than the politicians and greedy co-beneficiaries of his larceny.
British researchers tested 85 convicted inmates (age ranged from 18 to 34 years with an average age of 20.4 years–no information was given on other demographic descriptors) at an English prison. They were imprisoned for a variety of offenses although the majority were crimes against people and 17.7% chose the option “prefer not to say” when asked about their offense. There was ultimately no relationship between offense committed and the inmate scores on the better than average effect.
The inmates were told they were participating in a study of self-perception. They were asked to perform three different tasks: first to rate themselves compared to the average prisoner; second to compare themselves to the average member of the community; and third to complete demographic questionnaires containing demographic information. The characteristics they were asked to rate themselves on during the first and second tasks were: being moral, being kind, being more self-controlled, more law-abiding, more compassionate, more generous, more dependable, more trustworthy and more honest.
Participants rated themselves better than the average prisoner on all of these traits.
Participants rated themselves better than the average community member on all traits except that of being law-abiding. Importantly, while the prisoners did not rate themselves as more law-abiding than the average community member, they rated themselves as equally law-abiding as the average (not imprisoned) community member.
The researchers are taken aback by this last finding and wonder if the findings “raise issues regarding the self-views of other groups who have especially poor skills or detrimental behavior habits”. For example, they ask, “Do students on academic probation believe that they have better than average academic skills? Do serial divorcees think they are better marital partners than the average spouse? Do people who overeat, smoke cigarettes, and fail to exercise think they have average or better than average health habits? If so, the prospects for people in these categories to improve their abilities and characteristics are not promising.”
From a litigation advocacy perspective, this certainly has implications for witness preparation and for how your client presents him or herself. That witness who seems to refuse to take advice might actually think they’re the best witness ever. Sometimes it’s enough to show a witness how they come across on video (so prep them with a camera and show him or her the ways they undermine themselves). If that doesn’t help and the budget permits, holding a focus group– however low-budget might be required– can make a big difference. Our stubbornness usually fades in the face of people mocking us or describing why they dislike us. It is an experience both painful and sobering.
Like the recently viral deposition videos for Justin Bieber demonstrate, most of us are not as smart and clever as we would like to imagine.
Sedikides C, Meek R, Alicke MD, & Taylor S (2014). Behind bars but above the bar: Prisoners consider themselves more prosocial than non-prisoners. The British Journal of Social Psychology PMID: 24359153