Above-Average Effect: Why People Feel Better Than Average

The above-average effect or better-than-average effect explains why some people consider themselves superior at everything.

The above-average effect or better-than-average effect explains why some people consider themselves superior at everything.

The above-average effect, sometimes known as illusory superiority or the better-than-average effect, is a finding in social psychology that people tend to overestimate their abilities.

Whether it is driving ability, estimating IQ, health, memory, relationships and even happiness, people consistently rate themselves as better than others.

For example, 93 percent of people think their driving abilities are better than average.

Naturally, we cannot all be above average — unfortunately, by definition some of us have to be below average.

Above-average effect vs. below-average

People do not always assume themselves to be above average, though.

When a task is particularly difficult, such as a mathematical problems or playing chess, people assume they will do worse than average (see: worse-than-average effect).

Suddenly, instead of overestimating their abilities, people start underestimating their abilities.

This creates an apparent contradiction: how can people assume they are better-than-average, but suddenly lose their confidence when the task is difficult?

Better than average

A study seeks to resolve this contradiction in the above-average effect by surveying runners about how they expected to do in an upcoming and challenging race (Engeler & Häubl, 2021).

Their estimates were then compared to their actual times.

The results showed that some of the runners showed the better-than-average effect: they thought they would do better than others.

The better-than-average effect was mainly driven by overconfidence, they predicted they could run faster than they really could.

The runners who underestimated their ability, though, were mainly driven by their expectations about other competitors.

In other words, they assumed other runners would be faster than they actually were.

Professor Gerald Häubl, study co-author, said:

“Our work identifies two distinct sources of bias or two different reasons for why people might not be well calibrated: they can be biased in their self-assessment, and they can be biased in their assessment of others.”

Overconfidence vs. under confidence

Fascinatingly, the runners who were worst were also the most overconfident.

This is another demonstration of the Dunning-Kruger effect, the findings that the poorest performers are unaware of their shortcomings.

Put more crudely, it is why the incompetent don’t know they’re incompetent.

Overconfidence, or the above-average effect, is not always bad, it depends on the circumstances, said Professor Häubl:

“Some of humankind’s greatest achievements were probably fuelled by some form of overconfidence.

But then, so were some of humankind’s most spectacular failures.

In very general terms, well-calibrated confidence, based on an accurate assessment of both one’s own and others’ abilities, is what people should strive for.”

In contrast, under confidence has more obvious disadvantages:

“The problem with under confidence, however, is that it can prevent people who actually have the potential to excel at something—a particular job or career—from even trying, because they falsely believe there are many others who are better than they are.”

The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Engeler & Häubl, 2021).

Author: Jeremy Dean

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology. He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book "Making Habits, Breaking Habits" (Da Capo, 2013) and several ebooks.

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