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Belief in our moral superiority is the most irrational self-enhancing bias of all

29 November 2017

Most of us believe we are smarter, harder-working and better at driving than average. Clearly we can’t all be right.

When it comes to moral qualities, like honesty and trustworthiness, our sense of personal superiority is so inflated that even jailed criminals consider themselves to be more moral than law-abiding citizens.

Why should the “better-than-average” effect be so pronounced for moral traits? In new work, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, Ben Tappin and Ryan McKay at Royal Holloway, University of London have found that it’s because we’re especially irrational when it comes to evaluating moral traits. Moral superiority appears to be “a uniquely strong and prevalent form of positive illusion,” they write.

Tappin and McKay showed a list of 30 traits to 270 participants. Ten traits related to sociability (like being sociable, cooperative, rude or uptight); ten to agency (like being determined, creative, unmotivated or illogical) and ten to morality (like being principled, fair, manipulative or deceptive). They asked the participants to rate how much each trait applied to them and to the “average person”, and to rate the desirability of the traits.

Read more on our Research Digest blog.

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