Unique like everyone else

Photo by Flickr user victoriapeckham. Click for sourceYou’ve probably heard of the many cognitive bias studies where the vast majority of people rate themselves as among the best. Like the fact that 88% of college students rate themselves in the top 50% of drivers, 95% of college professors think they do above average work, and so on.

In light of this, I’ve just found a wonderfully ironic study that found that the majority of people rate themselves as less susceptible to cognitive biases than the average person.

It’s work from psychologist Emily Pronin who studies insight into our own judgements and how it affects our social understanding and perception of others.

In this study, the participants (psychology students no less), were given a booklet explaining how cognitive biases work that described eight of the most common ones. They were then asked to rate how susceptible they were to each of the biases and then how susceptible the ‘average American’ was.

Each rated themselves as less affected by biases than other people, instantly causing an irony loop in the fabric of space and time.

The study also had a fantastic follow-up that demonstrated just how strongly these cognitive biases affect our thinking. Even when they’re pointed out, we can’t escape them:

Participants in one follow-up study who showed the better than-average bias insisted that their self-assessments were accurate and objective even after reading a description of how they could have been affected by the relevant bias.

Participants in a final study reported their peer’s self-serving attributions regarding test performance to be biased but their own similarly self-serving attributions to be free of bias.

Pronin calls this the ‘bias blind spot’ and you can read the full study online as a pdf file. Pronin also wrote an excellent 2008 review, also available as a pdf, on how these biases mean we see ourselves differently from how we see others, because we have direct access to our own minds but only observations of other people.

pdf of ‘bias blind spot’ study.
Link to DOI entry for same.

4 thoughts on “Unique like everyone else”

  1. Vaughan, an ungated version of the original paper can be found here.

    Click to access 2002BiasBlindSpot.pdf

    What do these experiments actually show? People are bad with averages?
    It would be more impressive if there was a control test in which the individuals demonstrated that it is impossible for most people to be better than average before any further testing was done.
    I am tempted by the results, but I wonder how much significance we ought to give them.

  2. I think it would have been better if the study had been conducted with a random sample of the population. All the subjects were upper level psychology students at Stanford. So right off the bat you know they have a much higher level of education, have far more training in objective analysis, and are just straight up more intelligent than the average person. And there were only 24 of them in the study. So its at least possible that all of them could have been above average. In fact it seems probable to me.

  3. @michael webster: a test demonstrating that for most people it is impossible to be better that average would be quite impressive indeed. šŸ™‚

  4. Ryan’s right. This article’s entire point is incorrect. Stanford psych students are correct to believe they are less susceptible to cognitive biases than the “average American.”
    There is no irony here, only a bad past that the author should either revise or take down.
    Par for the course when it comes to the overrated cognitive bias meme. I cover the movement in these two posts:

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