Monday, March 13, 2017

Why do we think we’re nicer than we actually are?

Simon Usborne
Monday 13 March 2017

How nice are you? No, really, deep down, how nice are you? It would be easy to imagine that low self-esteem leads us to play down our better qualities, but the research shows the opposite is true – regardless of our confidence, we are not as nice as we think we are. Nor are we as attractive or competent … the list goes on. If niceness were a number, we would be guilty of some pretty extreme rounding up.

If you can take that emotional blow (you’re probably still nice, just, you know, not that nice) listen to Jonathan Freeman, a psychology professor at Goldsmiths, University of London. In a study he carried out for an airline, he found that 98% of us consider ourselves to be among the nicest 50% of the population.


We flatter – and deceive – ourselves in other ways. In a joint study into appearance by psychologists at the universities of Chicago and Virginia, participants were shown images of themselves, including some which had been slightly digitally altered to conform with more and less attractive norms. When asked to identify the unaltered images, people tended to select the enhanced version of themselves. Yet when shown images of other people, participants correctly chose the unaltered ones.

Theories vary as to the reasons for these “above average” effects, which apply to almost anything (when asked, more than 90% of drivers will always rate themselves as above average). We unconsciously deceive ourselves so that we can gain confidence without knowingly lying to ourselves or each other. Other studies show that the best remedy for this unwitting self-aggrandisement, if it were required, is simple: feedback. Yet things get complicated here, too.

Margarita Mayo, a professor of leadership at IE Business School in Madrid, followed more than 200 MBA students over a year. At the end of each term, the students rated themselves and their teammates on various leadership qualities. Sure enough, peer ratings were lower than self-ratings at the start of the year. But, with each assessment, the feedback encouraged self-reflection and, across the board, self-ratings fell. Did they ever match the ratings of peers? “Only among the women,” Mayo says from Madrid. “Despite it falling [from the start of the year], the men continued to inflate their self-view.”

The women displayed a great self-awareness more quickly, which is good, but Mayo is concerned that where this ego gender gap relates to confidence, “it could be a step back for women in terms of career progression”. For men, meanwhile, the concern is that inflated self-perception leads to inflated job prospects. “It’s a double-edged sword,” Mayo adds. She has since looked into the effects of narcissism in the workplace and finds that humility trumps ego where quality is considered a priority. “Narcissistic leaders may climb the corporate ladder more quickly, but humble leaders tend to be much more creative and effective, while also serving as role models,” she says. In short, they really are nicer.

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