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I am morally superior to others and also less biased than  everyone….

Monday, December 19, 2016
posted by Douglas Keene

While you may think you have heard this line recently, this is really (based on new research) what most of us think about ourselves. It is called the “better than average effect” and it is very persistent. We might smirk at politicians who actually say things like this aloud, but that’s only because we tend to keep those thoughts to ourselves. We (persistently) view ourselves as just better than others, and of course, two new research studies underscore this point.

The first study (Tappin & McKay) recruited 270 adults and asked them to judge the desirability of 30 traits representing agency (e.g., hard-working, knowledgeable, competent), sociability (e.g., cooperative, easy-going, warm) and moral character (e.g., honest, fair and principled). Participants also were asked to indicate how desirable the trait was. how much this specific trait described both the average person and how much it described themselves.

While the agency and sociability traits were rated variably, almost all the participants rated themselves much higher on moral character than they rated the average person.

In an intriguing secondary finding, while the researchers found that overall self-esteem was not related to feelings of superiority, overall self-esteem was related to a sense of moral superiority.

In the second study (Howell & Ratliff), researchers used data from the Project Implicit website where people take various psychological tests that measure unconscious or implicit biases. They focused on people who took tests involving weight biases (these are tests that ask how much you—and the average person—prefer thin people to fat people).

Once again, participants rated themselves as less biased against fat people than the average person was and when given feedback that they were indeed biased against fat people, they were defensive. The more they had rated themselves as unbiased, the more defensive about fat bias feedback they were. They were then asked whether they thought the test was valid—unsurprisingly, they did not think it was valid since it contradicted their self-assessments.

The problem with this belief that we are better than others, both in terms of moral superiority and in our belief that we are less biased than others (which apparently we all share) is that it stops us from honestly assessing ourselves. Therefore, we are prevented from taking action to combat our own prejudices and biases (since we don’t think—or won’t admit—that we have them). Typically, when we hear information about those who are biased or less good than we are, we presume the speaker is talking to “those other people” and tune out.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, these studies have important implications for witness preparation, case narrative, and voir dire. We have discussed the importance of knowing when to raise juror awareness of their own biases and when to stay silent on this blog before. We’ve also posted before on when “playing the race card” works and when it doesn’t work.

This research seems to indicate the importance of using those previously published guidances to direct your decisions about witness preparation, voir dire and case narrative in your specific case. Additionally, it will be important to share “redeeming” information on your client’s involvement in positive activities and your client’s life reflecting the values shared universally by jurors (e.g., family, community, education, volunteerism, et cetera).

Tappin, B., & McKay, R. (2016). The Illusion of Moral Superiority Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550616673878

Howell JL, & Ratliff KA (2016). Not your average bigot: The better-than-average effect and defensive responding to Implicit Association Test feedback. The British Journal of Social Psychology. PMID: 27709628

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