If other people saw you as a selfish person, would you realize it? Over the past year, I’ve noticed some telltale clues:
- You look significantly hotter in your LinkedIn profile than in any other photo of you.
- When a child draws a picture of you, it sometimes resembles a snake or a weasel.
- At family dinners, you secretly enjoy grabbing the last cookie.
- You brag about your SAT score, and you’re not even in school anymore.
- You’re planning to plagiarize part of this post without giving proper credit.
- Your Facebook wall is dominated by selfies of you with important people.
- When your children ask you to read them a story, your first instinct is to ask, “What have you done for me lately?”
- After reading The Giving Tree, you thought the tree got what it deserved.
- You’re convinced that most people are takers.
- You go around telling people you’re a giver.
Let’s add one more: You blushed as you read this list.
I created this list as a lighthearted way to illustrate a serious point: We’re notoriously bad at judging our own generosity.
You’ve heard the statistics: 90 percent of people think they’re better than average. Evidence shows that we think we're superior to others in every domain: We believe we’re smarter, more attractive, more likeable, and more skilled at a wide range of tasks—from math to leadership.
For a long time, I hoped these narcissistic tendencies wouldn’t extend to the domain of giving and helping. I was wrong.
- Exhibit C: Ask people to predict how likely they’ll be to give money to charity, share resources with others, or do an unpleasant task themselves rather than dumping it off on a peer. Then, track whether they actually do those things, and see that people overestimate their generosity by 32 percent.
Psychologists have identified three reasons for these errors of perception:
- Ego. We like to see ourselves in a positive light, so we selectively remember our generous behaviors and find rationalizations for our moments of selfishness.
- Information. We have access to each act of giving we’ve ever done, but only a subset of other people’s helpful behaviors.
- Base rate neglect. When we predict our own rates of selfishness and generosity, we don’t bother to consider how common or rare this behavior is in general.
To find out if you think more like a taker or a giver, try this free assessment. You can also invite anyone to rate you anonymously at the site, and it site will provide you with an aggregate score. Try that one at your own risk.
And if you have a favorite way of spotting or reforming takers, feel free to share it below.
Adam Grant is a Wharton professor and the author of Give and Take, a bestselling book about the surprising success of givers—and techniques for recognizing and dealing with takers. It debuts in paperback on Tuesday, March 25.