If you’ve got it, flaunt it (P.S. You’ve got it)

The Economist has a short but uplifting article on research that suggests that we underestimate how good looking we are when compared to other members of the same sex, possibly to keep us on our toes and work hard to attract a partner.

If you have ever sat alone in a bar, depressed by how good-looking everybody else seems to be, take comfort—it may be evolution playing a trick on you. A study just published in Evolution and Human Behavior by Sarah Hill, a psychologist at the University of Texas, Austin, shows that people of both sexes reckon the sexual competition they face is stronger than it really is. She thinks that is useful: it makes people try harder to attract or keep a mate.

Dr Hill showed heterosexual men and women photographs of people. She asked them to rate both how attractive those of their own sex would be to the opposite sex, and how attractive the members of the opposite sex were. She then compared the scores for the former with the scores for the latter, seen from the other side. Men thought that the men they were shown were more attractive to women than they really were, and women thought the same of the women.

This is quite an interesting finding in itself, but also seems to go in the opposite direction to most other normal cognitive biases we have, which lead us to judge ourselves in a better light than others.

The effect nicknamed the Lake Wobegon Effect is where we consistently judge ourselves to be above average compared to others.

Also, we are more likely to think that positive events happen because of our own actions, and negative events are due to other people or external factors.

Interestingly, there’s quite a bit of evidence that mental illness is associated with the loss of these positive biases, giving us a statistically more realistic but emotionally painful view of reality.

Link to Economist article.

One Comment

  1. Posted November 27, 2006 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    Vaughan: amazing the amount of good posts you write. Thanks.
    You say “there’s quite a bit of evidence that mental illness is associated with the loss of these positive biases, giving us a statistically more realistic but emotionally painful view of reality.”
    Maybe a “healthy computer” is different from a “healthy brain”. The goal of the former is to be an objective tool that we can use; that of the latter is to help us survive. Brain Health or Brain Fitness, for a person, includes self-efficacy, which sometimes can be delusional, but always helpful to motivate us toward action and hope.
    It is fascinating to analyze what “mental illness” means and the assumptions underneath.


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