Most people in today’s society sit within the average rating across all aspects of life – such as talent, social life and educational achievements; however, most people rate themselves as above average. This is common phenomenon found across psychology is known as the better-than-average effect which is defined as the rise in the overestimation of one’s qualities and abilities when comparing themselves to others. This essay will look at if the better than average effect is a comprehensive theory of how we view ourselves and our performance and will critically discuss circumstances in which this theory applies and circumstances in which it does not.
There is a large collection of research within psychology into the experience of the better than average effect. A selection of this research discovers the idea of the better than average effect being a complete theory of our view of ourselves. For example, a study by Sedikides et al (2014), looked into whether the better-than-average effect is present amongst people who show lower than average on specific characteristics in which they used a sample of prisoners, they found that when prisoners compared themselves with the average prisoner, they presented themselves as better on all traits. Similarly, when comparing themselves with the average community member, they rated themselves better on all traits with the exception of ‘law-abidingness’. Surprisingly, the prisoners rated themselves as equally law-abiding as community members despite currently serving a prison sentence for breaking the law. This study shows that the better-than-average effect can be seen as an inclusive theory of how we see ourselves within specific populations, especially those who are shown to be lower than average within a community.
Another study where the results supports the theory was conducted by Pedregon et al (2012), 286 undergraduate students had to complete a demographic questionnaire, the NEO Five Factor Inventory Short Form (Costa & McCrae, 1912) and 59 randomly selected items from the Schedule for Nonadaptive and Adaptive Personality (Clark, 1993). Participants were tested in groups and were randomly assigned to one of four conditions where they had to rate how each item describes either themselves, their friends and family and people in general. The results showed that participants were more likely to indicate that themselves, their family and their friends have many positive qualities whereas other people in general were not described as having numerous positive qualities. This therefore implies that not only is the better-than-average effect a theory of how we view ourselves, it also applies to we associate ourselves close with.
However, a regular concurrence within research of this area has shown that within certain communities and cultures, the better-than-average effect could be reserved and show characteristics which are better known as the worse-than-average effect. An interesting study by Dunning et al (2003), found that people also underestimate themselves as well as overestimate. Using a sample of 141 students, they asked the participants to tell them how well they believed they had done on a test they had completed moments before and estimate their score and how well they knew the material compared to the rest of their classmates. Results showed that student who scored the lowest, overestimated their performance on the test and their raw score. They also found that the top scorers on the test tended to underestimate their raw score and percentile ranking although the difference was small. This suggests the better-than-average effect can be a representation of how we view ourselves and performance but also suggests that we can also view ourselves as lower than average and therefore the worse than average effect can also be a comprehensive theory of our views.
Similar results were found by Zell & Alicke (2011), they investigated whether age has an impact on the better than average effect. During the study, participants were split into three groups: Young, Middle-aged and Old Adults. Next, they were given a questionnaire in which they had to evaluate themselves and others on several different dimensions by rating on an 11-point scale how the listed characteristics described themselves and the average person. They found that a better than average effect was observed for both the young and middle-aged adult. However, with the older adults, they found this effect was reversed and showed a worse than average effect. This implies that for some people – such as young and middle-aged adults – the better-than-average effect is a comprehensive perception of their performance but for others – such as older adults – the worse than average effect is a more suitable theory to describe their view of their selves and their performance.
A cross-cultural study by Tam et al (2012), looked into whether there is a cultural difference between China and America for personal trait importance and cultural trait importance. The results found that Chinese participants displayed the strongest better-than-average effect on personally important traits, this result was expected due to the self-modesty in Chinese culture. Whereas American participants were found to have the smallest better-than-average effect on personally and culturally unimportant traits. This study implies that the better-than-average effect is not a comprehensive theory of all people as a whole, each culture experiences different traits that are believed to of higher importance and therefore are more likely to demonstrate the better-than-average effect
On the other hand, there are limitations of the research into the better-than-average effect that could suggest it is not a comprehensive theory of the way we view ourselves and our performance. For example, most of the research is conducted within one culture with most samples consisting of students. Therefore, the results are only applicable to students within that culture and cannot be generalised with the wider population; every person holds individual differences which will also come into account, not everyone will believe they are better/worse than average for the same traits and characteristics.
This essay has argued that, although the better-than-average effect is a comprehensive theory, it only applies to separate cultures and communities. Limited research looks into cross-cultural studies, restricting the generalisation of the theory to the wider population. The worse-than-average effect could also be a rational theory of how we view not just ourselves but others as well. Despite that, there is very limited research to suggest the better-than-average effect is not present in everyday life, and as a result, there is strong evidence to suggest that the better-than-average effect is representable of our views of ourselves and our performance.