What Is Better-Than-Average Effect? Are There Factors That Make It More Likely?

A thermometer with mercury bursting through the glass. Levels on the thermometer are Invincible, Strong, Steady, Building, and Fair. The thermometer is called "Confidence Level"
Image by Vic / CC BY

Most people with any degree of familiarity with psychological research know that in general, when you look over a large enough group of people, you will find a fairly consistent pattern: The majority of people think they are better than average.

This is of course statistically impossible. But it happens over and over again and has for decades. It’s known as the Better-Than-Average Effect.

And even if you are sitting there with a raging self-negativity bias and think that you suck (with or without cause) and/or are well below average, the reality is that this attitude is not the norm. And you and other people like you are far more than outweighed by people who are making claims in the other direction (again, with or without cause in any individual case).

What Puts Someone at Higher Risk to Be Overconfident?

It’s old news scientifically speaking. But a recent meta-analysis looks at over 100 published studies exploring this very reliable effect and actually did something kind of neat with it.

They used math to determine how big the effect is, as well as in what sorts of contexts people seem more prone to overestimate themselves.

Here’s what they found:

  • Effect size was rather pervasive and large.
  • The Better-Than-Average Effect was larger for personality traits than for specific abilities. This is probably owing to the fact that traits are more ambiguous and tougher to self-assess.
  • People of different cultural backgrounds did not have different-sized Better-Than-Average Effects.
  • When the entire field was considered, there was also no difference related to gender. (This was a surprising finding and breaks from other research that has linked overconfidence and maleness.)
  • People with higher self-esteem and life satisfaction were more likely to have large Better-Than-Average Effects. These findings suggest that having high self-esteem often is linked with feeling superior to other people, regardless of whether or not that feeling of superiority is warranted and may in fact be overconfidence.

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Huh. Lots to chew over here. I am surprised on a number of fronts. And not surprised on others.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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