Most of us know we are great. We easily see our own potential, goodness, and areas of skill. We’re sure we have strong justifications for our behaviors and beliefs. When things go wrong for us, it usually isn’t fundamentally our fault. When things go well, we know we deserve the credit.
Just ask people. In a poll of high school seniors, only 2% thought they were below average in leadership ability, and 25% believed they were in the top 1% of ability to get along with others (note: this survey was conducted by the college board, and it is possible students feared the results would be shared with colleges). What an exceptional bunch this group of one million students must have been! American students are also apparently really good drivers. In another survey, 93% of them claimed to be in the top 50% of driving skill. Yet another poll found that 87% of Stanford MBA students rated their academic performance as being in the top 50%. Paradoxical grade inflation perhaps?
But it’s not just students that are convinced of their own greatness. A survey of university professors found that 94% thought they were better at their jobs than their average colleagues. In a poll of teachers at the University of Nebraska, 68% rated themselves as being in the top 25% for teaching ability. More remarkably still, a survey of sociologists discovered that nearly half believed they would become among the top ten leaders in their field.
What’s wrong with all these people that allows them to delude themselves into thinking they are so great? The same things that are wrong with you and me. It’s painful to think that we are below average in some important way, or bested by our peers. It’s unpleasant to see ourselves as possessing many flaws, and to blame our failures on our traits rather than circumstances. Our minds tend to flee from painful thoughts, much like our hands retract from a hot stove. And we inadvertently condition ourselves: when we think about how great we are, it feels good, positively reinforcing further nice thoughts about ourselves in the future. When we admit our flaws, it hurts, and this punishment discourages future self-examination.
There certainly do exist people who have a genuinely negative self-images. Depressed people, in particular, often believe themselves to be inadequate or worthless, and there are plenty of other people with low self-esteem. Unfortunately this state is rarely a productive one, and in many cases is no more realistic than the more typical delusions of greatness. There also do seem to be some cases where people systematically downplay their abilities. For example, it may be that case that while people with below average IQs tend to overestimate their IQs on average, people who are above average underestimate them. Self reported intelligence typically has a correlation of less than 0.30 with IQ score.
One of the biggest problems with an unrealistic self-image is that it can severely impair our ability and inclination to self improve. If you already think you are an above median driver, as 93% of surveyed American students did, will you feel motivated to become a better, safer driver? If, like 68% of teachers surveyed at University of Nebraska, you believe you are in the top 25% of teaching ability, are you really going to try to improve yourself as a teacher? If you believe that you are less flawed than those around you, your sense of superiority may well make you less interested in acknowledging and reducing your flaws. Even an unrealistically negative self-image may impair self-improvement. It may cause you to overestimate the importance of small flaws, or cause you to give up if you believe you are too worthless to be fixable.
Your actual flaws don’t disappear just because you pretend you don’t have them. In fact, ignoring them will make it much more likely that they persist indefinitely. You make yourself a worse person (more deluded, less likely to improve) by pretending that you are a better person than you are. You become a better person (with beliefs more closely mirroring reality, and more motivation to change) by acknowledging your flaws and accepting that you may be a worse person than you thought. We are all significantly flawed. But with some effort, we can become less flawed.
Here’s a quick exercise you can do to help you have truer beliefs about yourself, and become an improved person.
1. Make a list of at least 3 fixable ways that you are significantly flawed. If you can’t think of three things in a few minutes, then add to this list your poor understanding of your weaknesses.
2. For each of these flaws, write down a brief explanation of how your life or the lives of others would be better if you improved the flaw.
3. Next, write down a strategy that you can carry out to improve the flaw.
4. Write down something you can do right now that will help ensure that you actually carry out this strategy.
5. Now, go ahead and do what you wrote down in step 4!
Here’s a printable version of this exercise: