The Good Self

How different is the outside view of you?

Posted Dec 12, 2018

Now I know where I stand with you people!  —Grandma Harriet reflecting on reflected appraisals

Self-enhancement, or the idea that most people overestimate themselves, is one of the enshrined truths of social psychology. Personality psychologists, in contrast, show little interest in aggregate effects of self-enhancement; instead, they want to know who self-enhances and who self-effaces, and what these directional effects may predict. For decades, social psychologists and personality psychologists have talked past one another by using different theoretical frameworks and different measures to study self-enhancement. Social psychologists tend to see self-enhancement as the outcome of a within-person process of social comparison. In a typical study, respondents rate their own standing on a desirable trait, such as morality, and they rate the standing of the average person in some referent population. Or they condense the comparison into a single judgment such as a percentile rating for themselves (‘how many people out of a 100 are less moral than you are?’). The typical finding is a better-than-average effect. Personality psychologists favor social reality over social comparison. Holding the target of judgment constant, they ask respondents only to rate themselves, and leave it to ‘informants’ to judge the target from the outside. The theoretical claim is that the variation among the informants’ ratings is random error variance, whereas the variation between self’s ratings and the average informant ratings reveals a systematic bias in the targets’ self-ratings (Krueger, Heck, & Asendorpf, 2017).

Since social psychologists have focused on group-level (i.e., mean) differences, while neglecting individual differences, whereas personality psychologists have studied individual differences, while neglecting mean differences, there has been little cross-talk. This black hole has now been partially filled by a meta-analysis of mean differences in the social-reality (i.e., informant) paradigm (Kim et al., 2018). The main finding is what has been clear to students of this type of work, namely, that, on average, people do not rate themselves more favorably than others rate them. To those who believe that the informant paradigm is the bee’s knees, the grand self-enhancement effect can now be pronounced dead (n. b., Kim et al. do not draw this conclusion).

A closer look at the data is enlightening. Using the big 5 personality traits (OCEAN = Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism), O shows “a modest self-enhancement effect” of .247 standard units, while the other four traits show very small self-effacement effects. Simply put, people on average see themselves as smarter than others see them. This result matches the finding of a recent large-scale survey conducted in the social psychological tradition, which shows that 65% of people think they are more intelligent than the average person (Heck et al., 2018). The plot thickens when we look at the informants. Who are they? Most informant-driven personality assessment research requires informants to be knowledgeable about the target person. But here is the problem: as more knowledgeable informants, such as friends, lovers, or grandma, are recruited to provide ratings, knowledgeability becomes increasingly confounded with love, liking, and attachment. In other words, as the random error of these informant judgments goes down, their positivity bias goes up. As the informants’ positivity bias goes up, and if self-ratings are as positively biased as some social psychologists insist they are, the mean difference between self-judgment and aggregate informant judgment must go down.

This is what the data show. For family, friends, and colleagues, there are no discernible self/other differences. However, when the informants are strangers, their judgments of the targets are less positive than the targets’ self-judgments. This is so for four traits, but not extraversion. Is it then the case that strangers are better judges of character than are family, friends, or colleagues—which is what one would have to assume if one asserted that these data unambiguously reveal the inflated positivity of self-judgments? The answer is no. Again, the counterintuitive (and potentially frustrating) state of affairs is that increasing familiarity, from strangers, to friends, to self enhances both access to valid information and the motive to inflate the good aspects one sees. Self-enhancement, when it occurs, might be a matter of other-devaluation, such that strangers see target people not as positively as they should (in the social-reality paradigm), and the targets see the average person (which is heavily loaded with strangeness) as less positive than they should (in the social comparison paradigm). This point remains under discussion. A model described in Heck & Krueger (2015) assumes that ratings of others are projectively derived from self-ratings. As anchors, the latter are less elastic than the former. Guenther & Alicke (2010) also find that other-ratings are anchored on self-ratings, but argue that the latter carry a greater positivity bias.

Grandma Harriet used to solve this issue by not dwelling on evaluation. When she did express liking or love, she did so jubilantly. When she expressed disapproval, she did so very briefly, e.g., with a single word, such as meshugana! Then again, Grandma Harriet may not have been the most prototypical informant; in her view, cocker spaniel Kirby – of blessed memory – was “the best person.”

Guenther, C.L. & Alicke, M.D. (2010).  Deconstructing the better-than-average effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99, 755-770.

Heck, P. R., & Krueger, J. I. (2015). Self-enhancement diminished. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144, 1003-1020.

Heck, P. R., Simons, D. J., & Chabris, C. F. (2018). 65% of Americans believe they are above average in intelligence: Results of two nationally representative surveys. PLOS ONE. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0200103

Kim, H., Di Dominico, S., & Connelly, B. S. (2018). Self-other agreement in personality reports: Meta-analytic comparison of self- and informant-report means. Psychological Science. DOI:10.1177/0956771880000

Krueger, J. I., Heck, P. R., & Asendorpf, J. B. (2017). Self-enhancement: Conceptualization and Assessment. Collabra: Psychology, 3(1), 28. doi: http://doi.org/10.1525/collabra.91