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The illusory superiority
August 24th, 2013

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

The illusory superiority

Recently, I posted ( about the "end of history" illusion, which people easily rely on to blind themselves from "things as they are."
I think the more we know the patterns, the more we're likely to catch them when we manifest them… hence more likely to pause, take a deep breath, and free ourselves from the bondage of habits and prejudiced thought patterns.
Another well-known and common mechanism is the illusory superiority, also known as the "above average" effect, the superiority bias, the leniency error, the sense of relative superiority, or the "primus inter pares" effect.

It is a perception issue, by which most people overestimate their positive qualities and underestimate their negative qualities, relative to other people.

Classic, well-established cases are
• 68% of University teachers rated themselves in the top 25% for teaching ability…
• 87% of MBA students rated their academic performance as above the median (i.e. the performance below which 50% of students are)…
• 85% of SAT students think they "get on with others" better than the median (i.e. 50%), and 25% think they're in the top 1%!
Many other studies with similar results exist.

It may be noted that, usually, there are self-centric circles: people too often consider themselves better than their average peer, but they also consider their peers better than outsiders… This easily translates in nationalism, religious fundamentalism, etc.

It may also be noted that, often, this extends way beyond social skills or social constructs: people tend to think they get a better deal (e.g. better price, or better quality for the same price…) than their peers. People end up with the same mobile phones, but 'theirs' supposedly is better, e.g. "better configured"!?!

Of course, the positive-thinking trend is happily contributing to the illusion, for monetary benefits.

Peer selection also plays a role. People tend to make sure they have a 'loser' in their peer group, to use as confirmation of their superiority when needed. People also try to associate themselves with 'winners'; as a result, many in the peer group might be superior to them but belonging to this particular group will be interpreted as being part of the elite of a wider circle…

It has also been established that, often, people are not so much mis-assessing what they're aware of, they simply are not aware at all of their deficiencies. Basically, people are ignorant of their ignorance; they don't know what they don't know…

A little bit of fun, no harm?

The classic errors associated with awareness of the superiority bias are:
• a superiority bias is not (as bad as) a superiority complex,
• one is not addicted to one's superiority narrative,
• it's a little bit of fun, no harm done.

Let's be clear.

Even if the top 1% of networkers are indeed part of the 25% of a group seeings themselves as "among the top 1%", 24% are delusional (that's 24/25 = 96% of the self-convinced!) and will sooner or later face unsatisfactoriness, a painful "reality check", dukkha.

Even if the 25% best performers are part of the 68% of teachers thinking themselves as the top 25%, 43% are delusional (that's 43/68 = 63% of the self-convinced) and will sooner or later face unsatisfactoriness, a painful "reality check", dukkha.

A classic practical manifestation of this suffering is that "life is unfair".

Supposedly people are in the top 1%… but they don't find jobs, or they find jobs not commensurate to their abilities, where they're under-paid, under-appreciated, under-valued, "taken for granted"…

Since I wrote about marriage (, how many in a relationship think they're "taken for granted" although they're not actually as good as they think in terms of nurturing their relationship and manifesting their love?
Are they "taken for granted", or are they merely themselves taking for granted their supposed greatness?

Not "seeing things as they are" is the surest recipe for future suffering, i.e. the surest recipe for perpetuating dukkha: it is directly equivalent to planting the seeds of unsatisfactoriness in life!

What to do?

Because part of the issue is not knowing what we don't know, obviously maintaining a willingness to learn and study throughout our whole life is important.
Unless you're satisfied with your life, ignorance is not bliss… it is just the endless perpetuation of saṃsāra.
A tendency is the confirmation bias. We seek proof that we know, rather than proof that we don't. A "willingness to learn" could be seen as curiosity for what we don't know: it doesn't mean negating what we know, but simply accepting that there's more out there to learn. It doesn't reject knowledge, it rejects that there is a core essence to it: it rejects that knowledge is independent of the context, it rejects that knowledge can be 'complete' independently of new situations arising, new results (positive or negative), it rejects the "end of history" illusion that the knowledge would not age and become outdated, etc.

The most reliable alert we have at our disposal —to stop and possibly drop such a biased thought habit, i.e. such a prejudice, of superiority— is actually the direct monitoring of our thoughts.
Very simply, every time we think we know 'better', we do 'better', we perform 'better', this might be true but this might be completely erroneous and biased. Mindfulness of our thoughts is key.
We don't need to blame ourselves for not knowing what we don't know (yet), but we don't have to consider this feeling of knowing things 'well' (or at least 'better' than our 'ignorant' peers) as reliable.

Every occurrence of the thought "better than peers" should be followed by a mindful "Is it really true? Can I be absolutely sure it's true?" And, sometimes, you might factually be in the top 1% (or whatever 'top')… For example, billionaires factually are in the top 1% of wealth; but this doesn't mean they're in the top 1% performers at their job! Being in the right time at the right place is more often due to luck than to skill. It takes skills to respond, but this in itself doesn't mean the skills are exceptional. Too many generalisations are abusive and they're unlikely to hold if one asks "Is it really true? Can I be absolutely sure it's true?"

Don't reject what you know! Appreciate what you know! Simply don't assume "it's all there is to know": keep looking!

#Buddhism   #cognitive   #bias  
unattributed image via