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Ethics and morality, Government and politics

We have an unfortunate tendency to assume we’re morally superior to others

Study finds irrational enhancements of moral superiority were not associated with greater wellbeing or self-esteem.

14 November 2016

By Alex Fradera

“How did our politics get so poisonous? We drank too much of the poison. There’s a gentle high to the condemnation. And you know you’re right, right? You know you’re right.” Steven Colbert

Wrapping up his coverage of the US election, Colbert touched on something that may hold true even beyond partisan politics: most of us seem to think we’re more moral than other people. Now a study in Social Psychological and Personality Science has provided fresh evidence supporting Colbert’s observation. Our tendency to see ourselves as better than average – already well-established in psychology in relation to things like driving ability and attractiveness – applies to our sense of our own morality, more strongly than it does to other aspects of ourselves. And the new research shows just how irrational this really is.

There are some contexts where it makes sense to view your own qualities as unusual. The most obvious is when you can make a clear comparison, such as knowing your IQ is 140 and that the average is 100. The second, raised by study authors Ben Tappin and Ryan McKay, is when you know you are strong on a trait, with no reason to think that should be typical of others. If it strikes me one day that I have a peculiar strength – say that I’m far better at observing canine hunger than any other doggy state – it wouldn’t make sense to assume that everyone else has this peculiar skill too.

But in other contexts, it’s irrational to assume that our own skills are unusual. Imagine I’m very kind and nurturing to kittens, much more so than I am to cockroaches. Without a Kitten-Kindness psych-test score proving I’m objectively superior, and knowing full well that most people have a fondness for softer, non-vermin animals, then to presume I’m special in this area would be irrational. It would make more sense to either drop my own self-rating, or award high ratings on this trait to everyone. This balancing-out is called social projection – if I do it, similar people probably do it as well.

The question Tappin and McKay set out to test is whether we view our morality, as compared with other traits, more like kitten cuddling or dog perception; that is, whether we see our own moral virtues as special or if instead we socially project and assume others are like us.

The researchers recruited 270 participants from an online portal and asked them to rate themselves and the average person on 30 traits, and to rate the desirability of each one. A third of the traits related to the domain of morality (e.g., honest, principled), a third sociability (warm, family oriented) and a third agency (hard working, competent), and Tappin and McKay computed how similar each participant was to the rest of the sample on each of these domains. The more similar the participants rated themselves on these different domains then, if they were being logical about it, the more they should have socially projected and assumed that when they were high on a trait, the average person would be too.

As a rule, the participants engaged in social projection, which helped them to rate others accurately. But in the morality domain, the participants should have socially projected much more than they did. Instead, their ratings were influenced by the desirability of the moral traits, meaning that participants rated particularly prized traits like trustworthiness as 6.1 for themselves, but only 4.3 for others. Traits like competence and warmth in the other domains were also highly prized, but the participants didn’t inflate their scores here in the same way. In short, we seem to be especially prone to seeing ourselves as morally superior.

Sometimes mismatches between ratings of self and others have a rational basis, but not when it comes to our moral superiority, where we are led away from accuracy by our desire to be a certain way. The researchers point out that it’s particularly easy to make this kind of error when it comes to morality because we aren’t privy to other people’s motivations, yet routinely rationalise our own actions and lapses.

Since the discovery of these kinds of “positivity illusions”, scholars have argued that they prop up our wellbeing, but in this dataset, these irrational enhancements of moral superiority were not associated with greater wellbeing or self-esteem. Perhaps we expect that feeling morally superior will give us peace of mind… but ultimately, it doesn’t deliver. Something to remind ourselves in these trying political times.

Further reading

The Illusion of Moral Superiority

Image via Max Goldberg/Flickr