Illusory Superiority, Related Psychological Phenomena, and the Importance of Cross-Cultural Exposure

In addition to direct conflicts of interest inherent in the structure and functioning of media, the following psychological phenomena underscore the importance, in terms of approaching truth, of reading and researching on as broad a spectrum and as cross-culturally as possible.  People creating and disseminating narratives in any one society or larger group (ie “the west”), are subject to these features of human psychology; to claim or believe they are not is merely to exhibit them.

To attempt to extract ourselves from these obstacles is to become aware of them and to read and view news and opinion/analysis, and absorb culture (ie film, TV, books) broadly.  For US citizens, this includes exposing oneself to independent and non-corporate US media (ie this, this, this, this) as well as information from groups US American culture tends to feel suspicious of or hostile towards, such as Iran (which has an international news outlet called Press TV), or Russia (which has RT).

Obtaining the big picture by reading/viewing broadly allows us to see the biases, conscious and subconscious, present in each perspective, including, eventually, one’s own, and thus brings us closer to truth.

Illusory superiority

A cognitive bias whereby individuals overestimate their own qualities and abilities, relative to others. This is evident in a variety of areas including intelligence, performance on tasks or tests, and the possession of desirable characteristics or personality traits. It is one of many positive illusions relating to the self, and is a phenomenon studied in social psychology.

Illusory superiority is often referred to as the above average effect. Other terms include superiority bias, leniency error, and sense of relative superiority.

Svenson (1981) surveyed 161 students in Sweden and the United States, asking them to compare their driving skills and safety to other people. For driving skills, 93% of the U.S. sample and 69% of the Swedish sample put themselves in the top 50%; for safety, 88% of the U.S. and 77% of the Swedish put themselves in the top 50%.

A vast majority of the literature on illusory superiority originates from studies on participants in the United States. … Some studies indicate that East Asians tend to underestimate their own abilities in order to improve themselves and get along with others.

A recent Psychological Bulletin suggests … after our own performance, we readjust our estimates of our own performance more than we readjust our estimates of others’ performances.

Selective recruitment [a facet of illusory superiority] is the notion that, when making peer comparisons, an individual selects her own strengths and the others’ weaknesses in order that they appear better on the whole.

…when making peer comparisons on a specific characteristic, an individual chooses a comparison target—the peer to whom he is being compared—with lower abilities.

[Another facet, Egocentrism,] is the idea that an individual places greater importance and significance on their own abilities, characteristics, and behaviors than those of others.

Focalism … [is] the idea that greater significance is placed on the object that is the focus of attention. Most studies of the better-than-average effect place greater focus on the self when asking participants to make comparisons (the question will often be phrased with the self being presented before the comparison target—”compare yourself to the average person”). According to focalism this means that the individual will place greater significance on their own ability or characteristic than that of the comparison target.

Research by Sedikides & Strube (1997) has found that people are more self-serving (the effect of illusory superiority is stronger) when the event in question is more open to interpretation… This has been partly attributed also to the need for a believable self-view.

The effects of illusory superiority have also been found to be strongest when people rate themselves on abilities at which they are totally incompetent. These subjects have the greatest disparity between their actual performance (at the low end of the distribution) and their self-rating (placing themselves above average).

Bias blind spot

The cognitive bias of recognizing the impact of biases on the judgement of others, while failing to see the impact of biases on one’s own judgement.

Self-enhancement biases may play a role, in that people are motivated to view themselves in a positive light. Biases are generally seen as undesirable,[4] so people tend to think of their own perceptions and judgments as being rational, accurate, and free of bias. The self-enhancement bias also applies when analyzing our own decisions, in that people are likely to think of themselves as better decision makers than others.

People also tend to believe they are aware of “how” and “why” they make their decisions, and therefore conclude that bias did not play a role. Many of our decisions are formed from biases and cognitive shortcuts, which are unconscious processes. By definition, people are unaware of unconscious processes, and therefore cannot see their influence in the decision making process.

When made aware of various biases acting on our perception, decisions, or judgments, research has shown that we are still unable to control them. This contributes to the bias blind spot in that even if one is told that they are biased, they are unable to alter their biased perception.

[Experiment subjects] displayed standard biases, for example rating themselves above the others on desirable qualities (demonstrating illusory superiority). The experimenters explained cognitive bias, and asked the subjects how it might have affected their judgment. The subjects rated themselves as less susceptible to bias than others in the experiment (confirming the bias blind spot). When they had to explain their judgments, they used different strategies for assessing their own and others’ bias.

…when people decide whether someone else is biased, they use overt behavior. On the other hand, when assessing whether or not they themselves are biased, people look inward, searching their own thoughts and feelings for biased motives.[5] Since biases operate unconsciously, these introspections are not informative, but people wrongly treat them as reliable indication that they themselves, unlike other people, are immune to bias.

[In another test, subjects were able to persuade themselves that] they were unlikely to be biased, [but] their introspective reports did not sway the assessments of observers.

People tend to attribute bias in an uneven way. When people reach different perceptions from each other, they each tend to label the other person as biased, and themselves as being accurate and un-biased.

Pronin also hypothesizes ways to use awareness of the bias blind spot to reduce conflict, and to think in a more “scientifically informed” way. Although we are unable to control bias on our own cognitions,[3] one may keep in mind that biases are acting on everyone. Pronin suggests that people might use this knowledge to separate others’ intentions from their actions.

In-group favoritism

In-group favoritism, sometimes known as in-group–out-group bias, in-group bias, or intergroup bias, refers to a pattern of favoring members of one’s in-group over out-group members. This can be expressed in evaluation of others, in allocation of resources, and in many other ways.[1] For example, it has been shown that people will seek to make more internal (dispositional) attributions for events that reflect positively on groups they belong to and more external (situational) attributions for events that reflect negatively on their groups.

This interaction has been researched by many psychologists and linked to many theories related to group conflict and prejudice.

In 1906, the sociologist William Sumner posited that humans … had an innate tendency to favor their own group over others, proclaiming how “each group nourishes its own pride and vanity, boasts itself superior, exists in its own divinities, and looks with contempt on outsiders” (p. 13). This is seen on the group level with ingroup–outgroup bias. When experienced in larger groups such as tribes, ethnic groups, or nations, it is referred to as ethnocentrism [see below].

… study [has] demonstrated that, regardless of two groups’ similarity, group members will behave viciously toward the out-group when competing for limited resources.

By Tom Gauld –

…one of the key determinants of group biases is the need to improve self-esteem. That is, individuals will find a reason, no matter how insignificant, to prove to themselves why their own group is superior.

[In one study,] regardless of the facts that a) participants did not know each other, b) their groups were completely meaningless, and c) none of the participants had any inclination as to which “style” they like better—participants almost always “liked the members of their own group better and they rated the members of their in-group as more likely to have pleasant personalities”. By having a more positive impression of individuals in the in-group, individuals are able to boost their own self-esteem as members of that group.


Judging another culture solely by the values and standards of one’s own culture. Ethnocentric individuals judge other groups relative to their own ethnic group or culture, especially with concern for language, behavior, customs, and religion.

William G. Sumner coined the term “ethnocentrism” upon observing the tendency for people to differentiate between the in-group and others. He defined it as “the technical name for the view of things in which one’s own group is the center of everything, and all others are scaled and rated with reference to it.”

He further characterized it as often leading to pride, vanity, beliefs of one’s own group’s superiority, and contempt of outsiders.

Anthropologists such as Franz Boas and Bronislaw Malinowski argued that any human science had to transcend the ethnocentrism of the scientist. Both urged anthropologists to conduct ethnographic fieldwork in order to overcome their ethnocentrism. Boas developed the principle of cultural relativism and Malinowski developed the theory of functionalism as guides for producing non-ethnocentric studies of different cultures.

People born into a particular culture that grow up absorbing the values and behaviors of the culture will develop a worldview that considers their culture to be the norm.

If people then experience other cultures that have different values and normal behaviors, they will find that the thought patterns appropriate to their birth culture and the meanings their birth culture attaches to behaviors are not appropriate for the new cultures. However, since people are accustomed to their birth culture, it can be difficult for them to see the behaviors of people from a different culture from the viewpoint of that culture rather than from their own.

Examples of ethnocentrism include religiocentric constructs claiming a divine association like “divine nation”, “One Nation under God“, “God’s Own Country“, “God’s Chosen People“, and “God’s Promised Land”.

[The US national anthem proclaims:

Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!

Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”]

Collective Narcissism

…phenomena such as national identity (nationality) … are manifestations of collective narcissism among groups that critically define the people who belong to them.

…collective narcissism that may already exist among a group is likely to be exacerbated during conflict and aggression.

…cultures that place an emphasis on the individual are apparently more likely to see manifestations of perceived individual greatness projected onto social ingroups existing within that culture.

A quote from Hitler almost ideally sums the actual nature of collective narcissism as it is realistically manifested, and might be found reminiscent of almost every idea presented here: “My group is better and more important than other groups, but still is not worthy of me”.


Racist US political cartoon: Uncle Sam kicks out the Chinaman, referring to the Chinese Exclusion Act.

The unreasoned fear of that which is perceived to be foreign or strange.[1][2] Xenophobia can manifest itself in many ways involving the relations and perceptions of an ingroup towards an outgroup, including a fear of losing identity, suspicion of its activities, aggression, and desire to eliminate its presence to secure a presumed purity.


…refers to the ethnocentric and xenophobic practice of viewing the world from an explicitly U.S. perspective, with an implied belief, either consciously or subconsciously, in the preeminence of U.S. culture.

U.S. television networks have been perceived to contain an Americentric bias in the selection of their material.

English Wikipedia has been accused of Americentrism due to favoring sources from the US and dismissing non-US sources as biased, as well as frequently giving greater focus on US history and opinion in articles.

Reporter focuses on global force dynamics and writes professionally for the film industry.  On twitter with his UK-based colleague @_DirtyTruths.

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