ArticlePDF Available

Abstract

An overview of self-related superiority biases in social comparison is presented. Included are false consensus, false uniqueness, pluralistic ignorance, illusory superiority, unrealistic optimism, the sensitive and multifaceted self, the “Barnum” effect and the self-other asymmetry. Important conceptual and theoretical problems characterizing the field are pointed out and a review of cognitive explanations is presented. It is argued that most superiority biases are closely related to each other and that the self-enhancement motive or the pervasive tendency to see oneself in a favourable light offers a more fruitful approach towards their integration than the cognitive point of view. Some theoretical and heuristic implications of the proposed integration are briefly outlined.
PLEASE SCROLL DOWN FOR ARTICLE
This article was downloaded by:
[KU Leuven Biomedical Library]
On:
1 February 2011
Access details:
Access Details: [subscription number 918011596]
Publisher
Psychology Press
Informa Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-
41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK
European Review of Social Psychology
Publication details, including instructions for authors and subscription information:
http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/title~content=t713684724
Self-enhancement and Superiority Biases in Social Comparison
Vera Hoorens
a
a
University of Groningen, Groningen
First published on: 01 January 1993
To cite this Article Hoorens, Vera(1993) 'Self-enhancement and Superiority Biases in Social Comparison', European
Review of Social Psychology, 4: 1, 113 — 139, First published on: 01 January 1993 (iFirst)
To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/14792779343000040
URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14792779343000040
Full terms and conditions of use: http://www.informaworld.com/terms-and-conditions-of-access.pdf
This article may be used for research, teaching and private study purposes. Any substantial or
systematic reproduction, re-distribution, re-selling, loan or sub-licensing, systematic supply or
distribution in any form to anyone is expressly forbidden.
The publisher does not give any warranty express or implied or make any representation that the contents
will be complete or accurate or up to date. The accuracy of any instructions, formulae and drug doses
should be independently verified with primary sources. The publisher shall not be liable for any loss,
actions, claims, proceedings, demand or costs or damages whatsoever or howsoever caused arising directly
or indirectly in connection with or arising out of the use of this material.
Chapter
5
Self-enhancement and Superiority
Biases in Social Comparison
Vera
Hoorens
University
of
Groningen, Groningen
ABSTRACT
An overview
of
self-related superiority biases
in
social comparison is presented.
Included are false consensus, false uniqueness, pluralistic ignorance, illusory
superiority, unrealistic optimism, the sensitive and multifaceted
self,
the
“Barnum” effect and the self-other asymmetry. Important conceptual and the-
oretical problems characterizing the field are pointed out and a review
of
cogni-
tive
explanations is presented.
It
is
argued that most superiority biases are
closely related to each other and that
the
self-enhancement motive or the perva-
sive tendency
to
see oneself
in
a favourable light offers a more fruitful approach
towards their integration than the cognitive point
of
view. Some theoretical and
heuristic implications of the proposed integration are briefly outlined.
INTRODUCTION
An impressive number
of
self-related biases in social comparison and social
cognition have
been
identified during the last decades.
To
give
an
example,
most people relatively overestimate the proportion
of
others sharing their opin-
ions (false consensus); they also believe they have richer and better person-
alities than others. At first sight, many
of
these biases are closely related
to
each
other. However, self-related biases have often been studied in relative isolation.
Eitropem Review
of
Social
Psychology.
Voktnie
4
8
1993
John
Wiley
&
Sons
Ltd
Edited
by
Wolfgang
Stroebe
and
Miles
Hewstone
Downloaded By: [KU Leuven Biomedical Library] At: 16:44 1 February 2011
114
VERA
1400RENS
The disparate state
of
the field is problematic for several reasons. Firstly,
it
obscures the need for clear and unequivocal definitions and consequently
adds to the conceptual chaos in the domain
of
self-related biases. Secondly,
research on isolated self-related biases
is
hampered by the lack
of
a coherent
framework. On the one hand,
it
seems virtually impossible
to
achieve a thor-
ough theoretical understanding
of
how and when a certain self-related bias
will emerge without explaining why exactly this bias will occur rather than
another closely related
or
seemingly conflicting one. On the other hand, the
lack
of
an integrated view implies that a potentially important heuristic and
methodological
tool
remains unused. For instance, the plausibility
of
a hy-
pothesis about the cognitive strategies leading to a given bias can be initially
evaluated by testing its applicability
to
other biases known to be intimately
related
to
the phenomenon under study.
A
further, third, consideration is that
an integration
of
self-related biases may generate refreshing new insights
about the nature of social comparison in particular and social cognition in
general.
For
all these reasons, one
of
the aims of the present chapter is to
provide a theoretical integration
of
self-related biases. At the start, however,
it
is
necessary to reduce at least part
of
the
conceptual confusion characteriz-
ing the field.
The
second aim, therefore, is
to
provide an overview and a
conceptual clarification
of
the field
of
self-related biases.
In the paragraphs that follow, a review
of
self-related biases in social com-
parison will be presented and the relationships between different biases will
be outlined. After a review
of
cognitive and motivational explanations, a
general view on self-related biases as the product of self-enhancement and
self-validation will be developed. Finally, some of the conceptual, theoretical
and heuristical implications
of
this integration will be briefly outlined.
SELF-RELATED BIASES: A REVIEW
An attempt
is
made here
to
give an overview
of
concepts and phenomena as
they are described in the literature, including false consensus, false unique-
ness, pluralistic ignorance, illusory superiority, unrealistic optimism, pcrcep-
tions
of
having an especially rich or sensitive personality, the Barnum effect
and the self-other asymmetry effect. In addition, some
of
the ambiguities,
contradictions and overlaps characterizing the field are pointed out.
False
Consensus
People possessing a certain attribute (e.g. behaviour, opinion,
or
ability) esti-
mate the proportion of others sharing this attribute
to
be higher than do those
not possessing it. This phenomenon has been called “false consensus” by
Ross,
Greene and House
(1977).
In one of their studies, students were asked
if
Downloaded By: [KU Leuven Biomedical Library] At: 16:44 1 February 2011
SELF-ENHANCEMENT BIASES
115
they would give their permission for a videotape starring themselves to be
used
in
a
TV
commercial. In addition, they were asked to estimate the percen-
tage
of
their peers that would also give their consent. Subjects who claimed
that they would consent thought a larger proportion
of
students would agree
to
do the commercial than did subjects who claimed that they would person-
ally refuse to be on television.
False consensus has been found on a wide variety
of
attributes, including
behavioural choices, preferences, expectations concerning the outcome
of
elections, personal problems, and personal traits and views (Mullen
et
al.,
1985; Marks
&
Miller, 1987). Marks (1984) and Campbell (1986) showed that
false consensus especially manifests itself when opinions and
low
abilities are
involved
but
not (Marks, 1984) or
less
so
(Campbell, 1986) when high abilities
are at stake. People apparently believe that their opinions are shared
by
others and that others are equally poor on abilities they themselves only
possess
to
a low degree.
False
Uniqueness
Intuitively, false consensus and false uniqueness are felt
to
be like the two
sides of a coin. In this regard, false uniqueness can be defined as the tendency
of people possessing a certain attribute to estimate the proportion
of
others
sharing this attribute to be lower than the estimate given by people not
possessing the same attribute. Campbell (1986) has called this effect (which
she herself was not able to obtain) the “false idiosyncratic effect”. However,
the notion
of
false uniqueness has more often been used to denote an under-
estimation
of
the prevalence of one’s own attributes as compared to their
actual prevalence (Snyder, 1978;
Suls
&
Wan, 1987).
According to Snyder (1978), the term “illusion of uniqueness” was intro-
duced by Snyder and Shenkel(l975)
to
denote the phenomenon that people
mistakenly believe that they are different from others. Suls and Wan (1987)
and
Suls,
Wan and Sanders (1988) found that students with low levels
of
self-
reported fear or those who showed a healthy behaviour pattern underesti-
mated the proportion
of
low-fear students and the prevalence
of
healthy
behaviour
as
compared
to
the actual size
of
these categories-a phenomenon
they called false uniqueness. Later Suls
et
nl.
(1990) used the notion “fallacy
of uniqueness”
to
denote perceived uniqueness concerning emotional prob-
lems. They distinguished between a relative fallacy (false uniqueness defined
as the counterpart
of
false consensus) and an absolute fallacy (the actual
underestimation
of
a problem’s prevalence). In their study, patients suffering
from panic disorder or social phobia estimated the prevalence
of
these prob-
lems
to
be lower than a comparable but “normal” community sample, show-
ing a relative uniqueness bias. However, both patients and normals generally
overestimated the absolute frequency of these disorders.
Downloaded By: [KU Leuven Biomedical Library] At: 16:44 1 February 2011
116
VERA
HOORENS
At first sight, the definition
of
false uniqueness by McFarland and Miller
(1990) coincides with the “absolute” definition of Snyder and Shenkel(l975).
In McFarland and Miller’s view, however, false uniqueness is demonstrated
by findings which show that people see themselves as happier, better, and
more competent than others. According to these authors, then, false unique-
ness implies the perception of being
better
than others (see also Goethals,
Messick
&
Allison, 1991; Marks
&
Miller, 1987). In this sense, it may be
equated with the biased perception of one’s own
superiority,
a phenomenon
to
be discussed below.
If false uniqueness is defined in absolute terms, most demonstrations
of
it
indeed involve desirable attributes such as high ability levels (eg Campbell,
1986) and desirable traits, characteristics and behaviours (e.g. Goethals, 1986;
Mullen
&
Goethals, 1990). In the domain
of
opinions, personality characteris-
tics and preferences, this type of false uniqueness has been found for people
holding majority positions (Sanders
&
Mullen, 1983; Mullen
&
Hu, 1988). In
all these cases, “absolute” false uniqueness occurred simultaneously with
false consensus and therefore with the opposite of “relative” false uniqueness.
Marks (1984) showed that students estimated the prevalence
of
their best
abilities
to
be lower than the average student’s estimate of the same at-
tribute’s frequency, thus obtaining a “relative” false uniqueness effect for
positive attributes. It seems, then, that although demonstrations
of
false
uniqueness are relatively rare, some evidence exists for both an absolute and a
relative effect. This is especially
so
when positive attributes are at stake.
However, a whole research tradition exists on what could be considered to be
a specific type
of
perceived uniqueness for negatively valued self-attributes.
This bias will be described below.
Pluralistic Ignorance
Most authors credit F.L. Allport with coining the term “pluralistic ignorance”
to denote situations in which most members
of
a group privately reject group
norms, yet each believes him or herself to be the only deviant individual or at
least to belong
to
a deviant minority (Miller
&
McFarland, 1987,1991; Toch
&
Klofas, 1984). The bias occurs when people hide their true attitude (e.g. to
avoid embarrassment) and fail to realize that others may be doing the same.
According to Miller and McFarland (1987), pluralistic ignorance differs from
the general phenomenon of (absolute) false uniqueness for two reasons:
firstly, it occurs despite the availability of behavioural evidence that one is
similar to others (as one behaves just
like
others do); secondly, as the phe-
nomenon implies the perception
of
one’s own deviancy, motivational explana-
tions for the phenomenon are implausible.
Like “false uniqueness” the term “pluralistic ignorance” has been used
to
denote different phenomena. Taking a broader
view
than is implied
by
the
Downloaded By: [KU Leuven Biomedical Library] At: 16:44 1 February 2011
SELF-ENHANCEMENT
BIASES
117
definition given above, Merton (1957) identified two patterns
of
pluralistic
ignorance: exaggerated perceptions
of
uniqueness
and
exaggerated percep-
tions
of
consensus. The stand taken.by O’Gorman and Garry (1976)-that
pluralistic ignorance refers to any false idea held by individuals regarding the
groups
to
which they belong-is as general as encompassing
all
distortions in
the perception
of
one’s own and other people’s attributes. However, in order
to distinguish pluralistic ignorance from other biases
it
is useful
to
employ the
definition given by Miller and McFarland (1991).
Illusory Superiority
When people estimate their relative position on a number
of
attributes, they
typically report that they possess positive characteristics to a higher, and
negative characteristics to a lower, degree than the average other or most
others (Alicke, 1985; Brown, 1986). This phenomenon has been shown in
such diverse domains as personality traits (Alicke, 1985), abilities (Dunning,
Meyerowitz
&
Holsberg, 1989). life circumstances (Heady
&
Wearing, 1988)
and satisfaction with relationships (Buunk
&
Van Yperen, 1991). In an
experiment by Hoorens and Buunk (1992b),
to
be discussed in more detail
below, high school students indicated how true each
of
a number
of
trait
adjectives were for themselves and for the average high school student.
They ascribed higher levels of, among other attributes, honesty, persistence
and originality to themselves than to the average student. Subjects also
described themselves as less hostile, less vain and less unreasonable than
average.
The relative overevaluation
of
one’s own attributes has been denoted with
a variety
of
concepts, including: “illusory superiority” (Van Yperen
&
Buunk,
1991), “the sense
of
relative superiority” (Heady
&
Wearing, 1988), the
“leniency error” (Meyer, 1980), the “above-average effect” (Dunning,
Meyerowitz and Holzberg, 1989), the “superior conformity
of
the self” or the
“primus inter pares”
(first among equals) effect (Codol, 1975). It is suggested
here that we should employ the general concept
of
“illusory superiority” to
describe the relative overvaluation
of
one’s own attributes-be it personality
traits, abilities, conformity to group norms or
life
circumstances.
Unrealistic Optimism
Most individuals believe that their chances
of
experiencing undesirable events
are lower than other people’s, while their chances of experiencing desirable
events are higher. Weinstein (1980) named this phenomenon “unrealistic
optimism” as it is logically impossible for a majority
of
a given population to
be better off than most other members
of
the same group. Although Perloff
(1987) used the term “illusion
of
unique invulnerability” to denote the
Downloaded By: [KU Leuven Biomedical Library] At: 16:44 1 February 2011
118
VERA
HOORENS
perception
of
one’s own risks as lower than other people’s risks, unrealistic
optimism has been demonstrated
for
positive as well as
for
negative prospects
(Weinstein, 1980).
For
instance, people believe that they are less likely than
others to become the victim
of
accidents and crimes (Perloff, 1987), and that
they are more likely to have a gifted child
or
to travel to interesting places
(Hoorens
&
Buunk, 1992a, b; Weinstein, 1980).
The Sensitive Self
Johnson (1987) asked a number
of
subjects to imagine themselves, a close
friend, a moderate friend and a casual acquaintance in a number
of
affect-
eliciting situations. Subjects then estimated the degree to which the target
person would privately
feel
and publicly display certain socially desirable and
undesirable emotions. Experienced feelings were reported to
be
more intense
than displayed feelings. However, especially for socially undesirable feelings,
this discrepancy (the “secret self”) increased with the familiarity
of
the target.
While subjects thought they would experience any emotion more intensely
than others, they expected that they would reveal socially desirable emotions
more and socially undesirable emotions less than any
of
the other target
persons. McFarland and Miller (1990) found that people expect their own
emotional reactions in affect-eliciting situations to be qualitatively identical
to, but stronger than, other people’s reactions. Finally, White and Younger
(1988) showed that people ascribe more transient emotional states
to
them-
selves than to others.
A
content analysis
of
essays written by subjects about
themselves as opposed
to
those written about some other person yielded
more references
to
internal states and characteristics
for
the former category
of
essays than
for
the latter. Taken together, these findings suggest that
people perceive themselves
to
have an unusually rich and intense emotional
life.
The
Multifaceted Self
Sande, Goethals and Radloff (1988) demonstrated “the multifaceted self”
or
a tendency to endorse more personality traits than one ascribes to others (see
also Monson, Tanke
&
Lund, 1980). They found that when subjects rated the
applicability of trait adjectives to themselves and an acquaintance, they per-
ceived themselves
to
possess more traits that were members of opposing pairs
than they perceived their acquaintance
to
possess. Miller and McFarland
(1987) found that their subjects also assigned higher trait ratings to them-
selves than to the average other. Although this was the case
for
positive and
negative traits, the effect was only apparent in hidden (not directly observ-
able) traits. In other words, people perceive themselves to have particularly
rich personalities.
Downloaded By: [KU Leuven Biomedical Library] At: 16:44 1 February 2011
SELF-ENI
IANCEMENT
L3lASES
119
The Barnum Effect
When people are confronted with universally applicable personality descrip-
tions allegedly based on face-valid assessment procedures, they often accept
these profiles as accurate descriptions of their personality without realizing
that they apply equally well to others. This phenomenon has been called the
“fallacy of personal validation” (Forer, 1949), the “acceptance phenomenon”
(Snyder, Shenkel
&
Lowery, 1977)
or
the “Barnum effect” (Meehl, 1956)-
named after the P.T. Barnum circuses whose popularity was advertised by the
fact that they “had a little something for everybody”.
Johnson
et
al.
(1985) argued that the Barnum effect also occurs
if
people are
not led
to
believe that a personality description is prepared specifically for
them. In addition, Johnson
et
al.
showed that when subjects rated the accuracy
of
paragraph-long personality descriptions, a clear-cut Barnum effect only
occurred for positively-toned descriptions, while no differential accuracy for
oneself versus other people was found for negatively-toned descriptions
(see
also Snyder, Shenkel
&
Lowery, 1977, for a review of similar findings).
Personality descriptions basically consist
of
an enumeration
of
traits and
trait-relevant behaviours. Therefore, the Barnum effect must be closely re-
lated to other biases. Indeed, Snyder (1978) described the effect as just an-
other example
of
the illusion
of
uniqueness while in another publication he
labelled his research “an exploration
of
the effects
of
pluralistic ignorance”
(Snyder
&
Shenkel, 1976). If the aspect
of
personal specificity is unnecessary
for the Barnum effect
to
occur, it is clear that the stronger ascription
of
traits
to oneself than to others may also be subsumed under the phenomena
of
the
multifaceted
self
or
illusory superiority described above. Therefore, the main-
tenance
of
a concept like the “Barnum effect” can only be justified
if
it is
defined as the gullible acceptance
of
allegedly
person-specific
personality feed-
back as uniquely accurate for oneself.
Self-other Asymmetry in Social Comparison
When people assess the difference
or
the similarity between themselves and
others,
they
generally report that they are less similar
to
others than others
are
to
them. For instance, Codol (1987, exp 5) presented his subjects with a
number of personality traits. For each trait, subjects either indicated to what
extent people in general were different from themselves
or
to
what extent
they themselves were different from people in general.
As
predicted, the
latter group reported larger self-other differences than did the former group.
The self-other asymmetry effect is not restricted
to
direct assessments
of
similarity in the domain
of
personality characteristics. Srull and Gaelick
(1983) showed asymmetry effects in self-friend comparisons for physical char-
acteristics such as one’s height
or
hair colour. Hardoin and
Codol
(1984)
Downloaded By: [KU Leuven Biomedical Library] At: 16:44 1 February 2011
120
VERA
HOORENS
found that when people were askcd to provide free descriptions
of
themselves
and another person, those who described themselves first used the same types
of
trait adjectives to describe both themselves and the other person. However,
those who described the other person first chose different types of trait de-
scriptors when describing themselves.
Section Summary and Conclusion
In the above review, some recurring themes are apparent. First, most
distortions are in a self-flattering direction. This
is
especially clear for illusory
superiority and unrealistic optimism, but
it
is also apparent in the case of false
consensus, false uniqueness and the Barnum effect. Secondly, some biases seem
to be closely related to each other.
If
one has an unusually rich personality, for
instance, then
it
doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect that any personality des-
cription will apply better to oneself than to someone else. Thirdly, many concepts
and definitions in the field
of
self-related biases are imprecise and conflicting.
It
is
clear that both a motivated choice between different solutions to the
conceptual problems mentioned above and a clarification of the relationship
between different biases should be based on an integrative theoretical view.
The first step to be taken towards such an integration requires a critical
evaluation
of
the evidence that the self-related biases are closely interrelated.
This
evidence will be reviewed
in
the next section.
BUILDING BRIDGES-OR
IS
THE WATER TOO WIDE?
Two lines of evidence suggest that self-related biases are closely interrelated.
First, the few studies reported in the literature which simultaneously examine
different self-related biases generally find that these phenomena occur jointly
and that people who are especially prone to show one
of
them may manifest
others to an equally strong degree. Secondly, identical factors in the domain
of
personal differences as
well
as characteristics
of
the comparison process
itself have been found to affect different self-related biases in parallel ways.
Self-related Biases:
Do
They Never Walk Alone?
While self-related biases have typically been studied in isolation, the few
exceptions to this have yielded interesting demonstrations
of
the joint occur-
rence
of
different biases. People faced with moral dilemmas report that others
would choose the same action as themselves (false consensus) but that their
own emotional reactions to the situation would be more intense (sensitive
self) (McFarland
&
Miller, 1990). Similarly, pcople who report that they arc
better than others also expect a better future for themselves. Furnham and
Downloaded By: [KU Leuven Biomedical Library] At: 16:44 1 February 2011
SELF-ENHANCEMENT BIASES
121
Brewin (1988) reported a significant positive correlation between the relative
overevaluation
of
one’s own traits (illusory superiority) and the tendency to
report a higher probability
of
desirable events in one’s own future than in that
of
others (unrealistic optimism).
For
undesirable events, however, no signifi-
cant correlation was found. DeJoy (1989) found that people who considered
themselves to be better and safer drivers than others also expected to be
involved in fewer accidents. However, in DeJoy’s (1989) study the dimensions
on which optimism and superiority were measured were closely related, thus
limiting the generality
of
his data.
In order to provide a more stringent test of the association between unrealis-
tic optimism and illusory superiority, Hoorens and Buunk (1992b) presented a
group
of
high school students with a number of positively and negatively valued
personality traits (reliability, honesty, creativity, intelligence, originality, persis-
tence, friendliness, being interesting, insecurity, resentfulness, unreasonable-
ness, sadness, hostility, not studious, vanity and credulity), as well as with a
number
of
desirable and undesirable events (getting one’s driving license at the
first attempt, maintaining contact with one’s family, discovering
or
developing
one’s artistic talents, passing one’s final exams, finding
or
keeping a nice part-
ner, travelling to exciting places, encountering financial problems, being the
victim
of
an accident, being the victim of violence, difficulty in finding a job,
having an unwanted pregnancy
[or
having one’s girlfriend become pregnant],
losing one’s partner to someone else). Each subject rated the likelihood
of
each
event and the applicability
of
each trait both to themselves and
to
the average
other student, a randomly chosen other student
or
to
their best same-sex friend
of the same age. Significant optimism and superiority effects were obtained
for
positive as well as for negative traits and events. Subjects estimated the likeli-
hood of desirable prospects and rated the applicability
of
positive traits higher
for themselves than for others while they estimated the applicability
of
negative
traits and the likelihood
of
undesirable prospects
lower
for
themselves.
More
important here, self-other differences
for
subjective probabilities and trait rat-
ings were positively correlated
(r
=
0.51;
df=
82;
p
<
0.001 for positive traits and
prospects;
r
=
0.36;
df
=
82;
p
<
0.001
for negative traits and prospects). The
personality traits involved in the measurement of illusory superiority had no
direct implications for attaining or avoiding the prospects involved in the mea-
surement of unrealistic optimism,
so
these results unequivocally demonstrate
the close relationship between
illusory
superiority and unrealistic optimism.
Different Biases-Identical Patterns
Similar correlation patterns have been found between different biases and
personality variables. People with a high
level
of
self-esteem
and a low
level
of
depression
generally display stronger self-related biases than depres-
sed people or people with low self-esteem. This has been shown for false
Downloaded By: [KU Leuven Biomedical Library] At: 16:44 1 February 2011
122
VERA
HOORENS
uniqueness (Campbell,
1986),
illusory superiority (Brown,
1986),
unrealistic
optimism (Brewin
&
Furnham,
1986)
and false consensus (Campbell,
1986).
In the study by Hoorens and Buunk
(1992b),
mentioned above, a high level of
self-esteem, as measured by a Dutch adaptation of the Rosenberg Self-
Esteem Scale, was predictive of self-other differences demonstrating illusory
superiority and unrealistic optimism for positive traits and events
(r
=
0.32;
df
=
82;
p
<
0.01
for optimism;
r
=
0.27;
df=
82;
p
<
0.01
for superiority). Negative
events and traits yielded relatively weak correlations with self-esteem
(r
=
0.20;
df=
82;
p
>
0.05
for optimism;
r
=
0.23;
df=
82;
p
<
0.05
for superiority).
However, for negative dimensions, both superiority and optimism were sig-
nificantly correlated with
focus
of
control:
the stronger one’s tendency to
perceive important aspects
of
one’s world
to
be internally determined, the
stronger the self-related biases were
(r
=
0.34;
df=
82;p
<
0.001
for optimism;
r
=
0.23;
df=
82;
p
<
0.05
for superiority). The latter result is in line with the
findings of, among others, Alicke
(1985)
and Weinstein
(1980)
who found that
subjectively controllable traits and events give rise respectively
to
more
il-
lusory superiority and unrealistic optimism.
Furthermore, different biases are affected by identical aspects
of
the com-
parison process. For instance, the
ambiguity
of
the comparison dimension
plays an important role in illusory superiority (Dunning, Meyerowitz
&
Holzberg,
1989),
false consensus (Gilovich,
1990),
false uniqueness (Goethals
et
al.,
1991)
and the Barnum effect (Snyder, Shenkel
&
Lowery,
1977).
The
more a comparison dimension is general
or
open to different interpretations,
the stronger the obtained effects. Similarly, increasing levels
of
personal relev-
ance
of
the dimension under study are associated with stronger effects for
different biases. The relevance factor has been found
to
affect false unique-
ness (Campbell,
1986),
false consensus (Judd
&
Johnson,
1981;
but see Camp-
bell,
1986),
the self-other asymmetry (Codol,
1986)
and illusory superiority
(DeJoy,
1986).
In addition,
the nature
of
the comparison other
also has a consistent influence.
People show self-related biases when the comparison other is a vague instance
such as “the average other” or “most others”, but they do not show them, or
show them to a reduced degree, when the other is a familiar person such as their
best same-sex friend
or
a sibling. This has been found for unrealistic optimism
(e.g. Perloff
&
Fetzer,
1986),
the multifaceted
self
(Sande
et
al.,
1988),
the
Barnum effect (Johnson
et
al.,
1985)
and self-other asymmetry (Srull
&
Gaelick,
1983).
Codol
(1987)
even found a reversal
of
self-other asymmetry
when the comparison other was one’s best friend. At first impression, the only
exception seems to be false consensus, which increases with increased liking for
and familiarity with the comparison other (for a review
see
Marks
&
Miller,
1987).
However, perceived similarity is a potent determinant of attraction
(Byrne,
1971)
so
that the familiarity-consensus relationship may be due
to
similarity-based peer selection (Judd
&
Johnson,
1981).
Downloaded By: [KU Leuven Biomedical Library] At: 16:44 1 February 2011
SELF-ENHANCEMENT BIASES
123
In experiments analysing the effect
of
the comparison other, familiarity and
significance
of
the comparison other is typically confounded with the degree
to
which this comparison refers to an individual versus a group. Familiar com-
parison others (e.g. one’s best friend or a sibling) typically include individuals,
while less familiar comparison others typically refer to a group (e.g. most others
or the average other). Sears (1983) has demonstrated that individuals may be
evaluated more positively than the groups
to
which they belong (a phenomenon
he called the person positivity bias); self-related biases in general and the effect
of the comparison other in particular may be the artefactual results
of
having
individuals comparing their own attributes to those
of
a group
versus
other
individuals. Hoorens and Buunk (1992a) tested this possibility by asking univer-
sity students
to
estimate the probability
of
both
a
number
of
prospects and the
applicability
of
a number of traits for themselves and for either their best friend
(familiar individual), a randomly chosen other student (unfamiliar individual),
or the average other (unfamiliar other, implying a social group). This test was
carried out in both anonymous and non-anonymous circumstances (see below).
Unrealistic optimism effects were obtained both in the average other and the
random other conditions but not in the best friend condition (Figure
5.1),
ruling
out a person-positivity explanation for unrealistic optimism and for the effect
of
the comparison other. Similar data were obtained for illusory superiority
(Hoorens
&
Buunk, 1992b).
Section Summary
and
Conclusion
When jointly measured, self-related biases in social comparison have been
shown to occur together. In addition, identical personality traits and charac-
teristics
of
the comparison process seem
to
affect the emergence
of
self-
related biases. These findings suggest that close relationships exist at least
among subsets of self-related biases. Therefore, a theoretical integration
of
these biases may not only be feasible but highly desirable.
In
order to achieve
such an integration,
it
may be useful to look at how the phenomena under
study have been accounted for, as such an analysis may yield important cues
as to how the different biases can
be
brought together. The section below will
be devoted to a brief review of the cognitive and motivational hypotheses that
have been put forward in the domain
of
self-related biases.
COGNITIVE EXPLANATIONS
OF
SELF-RELATED
BIASES
Theoretical debates on the explanation of self-related biases in social com-
parison have often centred on the question
of
whether these are essentially
motivational or cognitive in nature.
Do
people intentionally distort
Downloaded By: [KU Leuven Biomedical Library] At: 16:44 1 February 2011
124
VERA
HOORENS
2o
t
-
-
N
I
0
v
15
0)
Positive Events
self
0
Other
Average Random Best
Average Random Best
student student friend student etudent friend
Anonymou$/ Private Nan- anonymous/Publlc
N
I
Negative Events
self
0
Other
Average Random Best Averoge Random Best
student student friend student student friend
Anonymous/Privote Non-anonymous/ Public
Figure
5.1
Mean estimated chances
of
positive (upper panel) and negative events
(lower panel) in one’s
own
and another person’s
future,
for three comparison others
(the average student,
a
randomly chosen student and one’s best same-sex friend) and
for
two anonymity conditions (anonymouslprivate versus non-anonymouslpublic)
Downloaded By: [KU Leuven Biomedical Library] At: 16:44 1 February 2011
SELF-ENHANCEMENT
BIASES
125
comparison information in order to serve one or other goal or should they be
considered innocent victims
of
cognitive processes? This section
is
devoted to
cognitive explanations; a discussion
of
motivational accounts will follow.
Cognitive explanations of self-related biases assume that although people
may be motivated to obtain unbiased information on themselves as compared
to
others, such information may be impossible to obtain and/or the complex
task of social comparison may exceed people’s cognitive skills. Some
of
these
explanations have been advanced
to
account for one specific type
of
bias-
such as false consensus
or
unrealistic optimism. Others have been tested in the
context
of
different phenomena. These include the differential availability
of
and/or selective attention to self-related and other-related information, idio-
syncratic construal
of
comparison dimensions, and the inadequate use
of
base-
rate information.
Differential Availability and Selective Attention
One explanation
of
false consensus states that people base their judgements
of similarity on the accessibility of consensus-relevant information. Due to
selective exposure
to
similar others
(Ross
er
al.,
1977; Sherman
et
al.,
1983). as
well
as
to
the stronger cognitive availability of and focused attention on their
own position as compared
to
other people’s positions (Marks
&
Duval, 1991;
Ross
el
al.,
1977), this accessibility does not closely reflect the true distribution
of
attributes in the general population. Sometimes information on one’s own
position may even be the only information one possesses (Dawes, 1989), thus
rendering reliance on
it
the most rational strategy available.
In a similar vein, unrealistic optimism has been explained by stating that
while people are very well aware of the actions they undertake to avoid
undesirable experiences and to obtain desirable outcomes, cognitive
egocentrism-or simply lack
of
information-may prevent them from an ac-
curate perception
of
other people’s precautions. As a consequence, when they
are forced to consider additional information on others’ behaviour, unrealistic
optimism becomes significantly weakened (e.g. Alloy
&
Ahrens, 1987; Weins-
tein, 1980; Weinstein
&
Lachendro, 1982; but see DeJoy, 1989).
Kuiper and McDonald (1982) found that nondepressed people are able to
recall more negative information about others than about themselves, sug-
gesting that a differential availability
of
information may also determine il-
lusory superiority. Social interaction processes may contribute
to
this better
accessibility
of
favourable self-relevant information. While social norms pre-
scribe that a positive tone should be adopted in giving personal feedback,
people also seek the company of others who like them.
As
a consequence,
they are exposed to positively biased social feedback (Taylor
&
Brown, 1988).
Finally, the better accessibility, and the greater diversity
of
information con-
cerning one’s own traits or behaviours, has been claimed to cause phenomena
Downloaded By: [KU Leuven Biomedical Library] At: 16:44 1 February 2011
126
VERA
HOORliNS
such as pluralistic ignorance (Miller
&
McFarland, 1987), the multifaceted self
(Sande, Goethals
&
Radloff, 1988) and the sensitive self (Johnson, 1987;
White
&
Younger,
1988).
Idiosyncratic Construal
of
Comparison Dimensions
Gilovich (1990) found support
for
the hypothesis that people concretize gen-
eral comparison dimensions idiosyncratically and then base estimates of the
proportion sharing their position on these highly personalized dimensions.
While they may correctly estimate the proportion
of
others who would claim
to share their attributes
if
these others were considering exactly the same
specific dimensions, they ignore the fact that the latter condition is not neces-
sarily met. In addition, idiosyncratic trait definitions have also been shown to
contribute to illusory superiority (Dunning, Meyerowitz
&
Holzberg, 1989).
When concretizing vague trait
or
ability dimensions, people tend to stress
those aspects on which they are doing well. As a consequence, other people’s
attributes are compared with their own best characteristics.
Inadequate Use of Base-rate Information
Weinstein (1987) found especially strong unrealistic optimism effects for
health risks with a low
n
priori
probability. He interpreted this finding as
showing that people may mistakenly believe that
if
the chances of attracting
undesirable experiences are very small, the probability that they
of
all people
will be hit by these problems must be especially low. In other words, they
ignore the fact that small probabilities apply to anyone and not particularly to
themselves. According
to
Johnson
ef
a/.
(1985),
besides the availability of a
relatively diverse and rich amount of information concerning the self, neglect-
ing base rate information also adds to the Barnum effect. Overlooking the fact
that some characteristics would be endorsed by nearly anyone, people may
mistakenly believe that a description made up of such characteristics is an
especially good account
of
their own personality.
Unrealistic Optimism, Control, Prototypes, and Past Experience
According
to
some authors, unrealistic optimism emerges because people
overestimate the degree
to
which they can personally control the occurrence
of
a variety
of
events in their lives (e.g. Weinstein, 1980,1987). Obviously, this
mechanism can only account for the self-other difference inherent in unrealis-
tic optimism
if
people overestimate their own personal control relative to
other people’s (Martin, Abramson
&
Alloy,
1984)
or
if
they overlook the
action others take to exert control.
Other explanations have been specifically advanced for unrealistic
Downloaded By: [KU Leuven Biomedical Library] At: 16:44 1 February 2011
SBL.F-ENHANCEMENT BIASES
127
optimism concerning negative events. People may believe themselves
to
be
relatively invulnerable because they compare themselves to a prototypical
victim rather than to the average person (Weinstein, 1980; Dejoy, 1989).
Finally, unrealistic optimism may
also
occur when non-victims base their
vulnerability ratings for thus far unencountered problems on their past ex-
perience (Weinstein, 1987).
False Consensus and the Attribution Process
A final hypothesis that has been tested in the context
of
false consensus states
that people may show the phenomenon because they attribute their own
characteristics (such as their behaviours) externally. Ascribing one’s reactions
or
one’s opinions to situational characteristics or to the attitude object itself
indeed implies that in identical circumstances others would display the same
reactions
(e.g.
Gilovich, Jennings
&
Jennings, 1983; but see Sherman
et
al.,
1983).
Cognitive Explanations-Sufficient in Themselves?
Each
of
the hypotheses mentioned above has received at least some empirical
support.
It
therefore seems reasonable
to
conclude that the phenomena under
study are determined multi-causally by a variety
of
cognitive processes.
However, the question arises as to whether they can be
suficiently
explained
by referring only
to
the underlying cognitive mechanisms. There are three
main reasons to doubt this deduction.
1. Some cognitive mechanisms
put
forward
to
account for self-related biases
are in need
of
further explanation themselves.
For
instance, showing that
people believe they have more personal control than others implies the neces-
sity of explaining why this is so-one could even argue that differential per-
ceptions
of
control are a self-related bias
on
the same
level
as the very bias
to
be explained. In a similar vein, one could ask why people construe vague
comparison dimensions in such a way that this specification puts them into a
flattering light.
2. When put together, cognitive explanations
of
self-related biases
seem
to
be characterized by internal contradictions. For instance, a selective exposure
phenomenon leading to false consensus could be expected in addition to
stimulate expectations about other people’s personalities and futures as being
similar to one’s own. However, illusory superiority and unrealistic optimism
run counter to this reasoning. Similarly, hypotheses implying an inadequate
use of base-rate information have stressed both an overuse (in the case of
unrealistic optimism) and an underuse
of
it
(in the case
of
the Barnum effect).
At the very least the question
of
why the same type of information
is
some-
times used in one direction and sometimes in the other requires an answer.
Downloaded By: [KU Leuven Biomedical Library] At: 16:44 1 February 2011
128
VERA
HOORENS
3.
As
has been already pointed out, most biases are clearly in a self-flattering
direction.
If
self-related biases were caused by non-motivated cognitive er-
rors, then one would expect about as many instances
of
self-deprecating as
of
self-flattering biases (see also Weinstein, 1989).
Therefore, although cognitive processes may partly account for how self-
related biases come about, it appears that cognitive hypotheses cannot
sufficiently explain them. Moreover, while there are reasons to assume that
self-related biases are closely related
to
each other, a close
look
at exclusively
cognitive explanations reveals certain lacunae and even inconsistencies which
hinder rather than enhance a theoretical integration. It
is
therefore worth
considering the motivational explanations advanced in the domain of self-
related biases.
A MOTIVATIONAL APPROACH TO SELF-RELATED
BIASES
The motivational approach
to
self-related biases rests on the assumption that
these phenomena are deliberate distortions
of
a potentially known reality.
These distortions are assumed
to
be instrumental in obtaining desirable out-
comes. In order
to
fully
understand this approach,
it
is useful first to consider
which goals may be served by social comparison.
Motives, Strategies and Biases in Social Comparison
In the early days, social comparison was assumed to be motivated only by a
need for self-evaluation that could not be satisfied simply by comparing one’s
attributes
to
physical standards (Fcstinger, 1954). Since then, however,
it
has
been proposed that social comparison can be motivated by desires for self-
improvement-finding out one’s relative position in order to gain the neces-
sary information
to
improve oneself-and self-enhancement-allowing
oneself to develop a favourable self-view (for a review
of
social comparison in
general see Wood, 1989). Furthermore, as social comparison may enable one
to evaluate the correctness of already established elements
of
self-knowledge,
Swann and his colleagues stressed the importance
of
a self-verification motive.
In evaluating self-conceptions, people are assumed to search for confirmatory
information rather than to
seek
diagnostic information (e.g. Swann, Pelham
&
Krull, 1989).
As
this motive also pertains to the evaluation of flattering self-
knowledge,
it
partly takes the form of self-validation or the confirmation of
one’s superior attributes (Goethals, 1986).
At any given moment, the relative strength
of
the motives instigating social
comparison may influence the nature
of
the comparison process itself. Clearly
information search and processing strategies will be determined by whether
Downloaded By: [KU Leuven Biomedical Library] At: 16:44 1 February 2011
SELF-ENHANCEMENT
BIASES
129
one
is
seeking diagnostic and unbiased data, self-flattering information, or a
confirmation of what one already believes. These strategies, in turn, influence
the outcome of the information processing sequence which may therefore be
subject to motive-dependent biases.
As
noted by Wood
(1989).
of the motives mentioned above, the self-
enhancement motive is the one most
likely
to
give rise to self-related biases.
Indeed, whenever one strives for accurate and precise self-evaluation (or for
information allowing self-improvement) any information may be seen as
potentially
useful
and therefore equally welcomed. However, as self-
enhancement and self-validation may be threatened by a detached striving for
accuracy, these motives are more
likely
to elicit selective processing than the
more reality-oriented motives of self-evaluation and self-improvement.
However, the above discussion offers a somewhat narrow view
of
the mo-
tives behind social comparison. The social comparer does not operate within a
vacuum but within a social and physical environment that may challenge or
threaten him or her and that he or she approaches with a variety of expecta-
tions and demands. Social comparison may help people to deal with these
demands by contributing to the assessment of their situation rather than only
serving the goal of cognizing the self. Parallel to the motives mentioned
above,
in
comparing one’s own situation to that of others, people may be
driven by a search for accurate information, for improvement, or for reas-
surance. For reasons equivalent
to
the ones already described,
it
is reasonable
to assume that the last motive is the one most likely to give rise to cognitive
biases.
Finally, once social comparison has taken place, its outcome can only be
studied
by
observing behaviour that
is
at least partly based on
it.
This be-
haviour (eg. responses to a questionnaire) may be subject to people’s desire
to
ingratiate themselves with others. Therefore,
self-presentadon
motives
should be taken into account when considering people’s verbal reports of how
they stand relative to others.
Taken together, there are three motives that may be especially relevant in
the domain of self-related biases, namely, self-enhancement (or
self-
validation), striving for reassurance, and self-presentation. Each of these
will
be addressed below.
Self-enhancement and Self-validation
People may’ exhibit distortions
in
the perception of their relative position in
order
to
enhance or to maintain their self-esteem. Most researchers have
indeed found that self-related biases in social comparison are in a self-
flattering direction. On the most basic
level,
self-other asymmetry may simply
serve to help to delineate one’s self-identity (Codol,
1987).
By believing that
one’s opinions and negative attributes are shared by others-apparent in false
Downloaded By: [KU Leuven Biomedical Library] At: 16:44 1 February 2011
130
VERA
HOORENS
consensus-one can be reassured of the normality and appropriateness of
one’s position and of social support in case
it
comes under attack (Goethals
et
af.
1991; Holtz
&
Miller, 1985; Sherman, Presson
&
Chassin, 1984). Further-
more,
it
is clear that both emphasizing the relative uniqueness
of
one’s posi-
tive characteristics and believing that one has a better personality than others
bolsters one’s self-esteem (Goethals
et
al.,
1991). Finally, since having a rich
and diverse personality is positively valued in our culture, Sande
et
al.
(1988)
have interpreted the multifaceted
self
as partly reflecting self-flattering tend-
encies. Support for this view was derived from the observation that, even
apart from familiarity effects, well-liked others were equally described as
having especially rich personalities. It is clear, then, that the most potent
evidence for the role
of
self-enhancement in self-related biases
is
the obser-
vation that these biases are typically in a self-flattering rather than in
a
self-
deprecating direction.
Self-reassurance and Self-presentation
Theoretically, people may relatively underestimate their own risks of experi-
encing undesirable events in order to reduce their fear and protect their ego
from threats associated with facing unwanted outcomes. However, evidence
relevant to this hypothesis has been confusing. While some authors have
found
no
relationship between the severity
of
threats and unrealistic optimism
(DeJoy, 1989; Weinstein, 1980, 1987), others have found such a relationship
(Perloff, 1987).
The self-presentational view
of
self-related biases has thus far remained
largely unsupported. Brown (1986), for example, found
no
significant correla-
tion between illusory superiority and a measure
of
social desirability. Johnson
et
al.
(1985) tested the possibility that the Barnum effect occurs because
of
the
desire of subjects to please the experimenter
by
confirming the validity of
personality descriptions based on the experimenter’s assessment methods.
As
their subjects accepted descriptions that were clearly not prepared especially
for them, the authors concluded that the Barnum effect was not caused by
demand characteristics. Hoorens and Buunk (1992a) experimentally manip-
ulated the degree
to
which self-presentation motives were likely to be acti-
vated. Half
of
their subjects filled out a measure
of
unrealistic optimism in
private and anonymous circumstances; the other half was led to believe that
their answers were
to
be made public and identifiable in a subsequent group
discussion. While self-presentation motives were assumed to be more strongly
activated in the latter non-anonymous/public condition than in the
anonymous/private condition, approximately equal unrealistic optimism
effects were obtained in both conditions.
A
special type
of
social desirability explanation comes from Snyder (1989).
He assumes that, although initially people may display positive self-views
Downloaded By: [KU Leuven Biomedical Library] At: 16:44 1 February 2011
S
RI
.F-EN
H
ANCEM
ENT
I3
I
A
SES
131
because
of
their instrumental value in obtaining positive social outcomes, in
the
long
run these self-presentations become
so
well-rehearsed that people
genuinely start to believe in them. However,
it
should be borne in mind that
evidence relevant to this particular explanation
is
essentially lacking.
Section
Summary
and Conclusion
Three motivational explanations of self-related biases have been presented.
From this review,
it
has become clear that
if
self-related biases are
to
be
interpreted in a motivational manner, self-enhancement is the most plaus-
ible motive
to
be involved. Both theoretical considerations and empirical
evidence support this statement. However, people do not blindly build fa-
vourable images
of
themselves. It is likely, then, that self-enhancing distor-
tions in social comparison come about rather subtly and within the
boundaries
of
the subjectively believable. Taking this into account, a
motivational approach and, more specifically, a self-enhancement approach
to self-related biases may provide the unifying theme binding together dif-
ferent biases and resolving the inconsistencies that are present in exclusively
cognitive views. It seems, then, that sufficient building blocks have been
identified in order to proceed to a theoretical integration
of
the phenomena
under study.
TOWARDS A THEORETICAL INTEGRATION
In the “building bridges” section
of
this chapter
it
was shown that many self-
related biases are closely related
to
each other, suggesting that a theoretical
integration
of
these phenomena may not only be feasible but actually desir-
able. While cognitive processes clearly contribute to self-related biases, purely
cognitive hypotheses cannot provide a firm base for this endeavour. However,
such a base can be found in the motivational approach
to
social comparison.
The integration proposed here is based on the assumption that most self-
related biases are manifestations
of
self-enhancement or a pervasive tendency
to
see oneself as superior to others. This view rests both on theoretical and on
empirical grounds. Theoretically, the self-enhancement motive is more likely
to give rise to distortions and biases than any other motive in social com-
parison. Empirically, many self-related biases do indeed imply the perception
of
oneself as being better than others.
It seems reasonable, then, to subsume most self-related biases under the
common denominator
of
“superiority” biases.
As
the self-enhancing nature of
most biases seems to point
to
a common motivational background (a desire to
see
oneself as particularly “good”), it
is
indeed plausible to
see
the most direct
manifestation
of
this motive-namely, perceived superiority-as the core
Downloaded By: [KU Leuven Biomedical Library] At: 16:44 1 February 2011
132
VERA
HOOKENS
phenonienon
in
self-related biases.
In
addition, one might interpret other
biases as being (as least partly) alternative manifestations of this.
As demonstrated above, the proposed interpretation is quite straightfor-
ward for certain biases.
To
what extent
is
it
applicable, however, for the other
phenomena included
in
our conceptual review? One particularly useful dis-
tinction in the present context is the one proposed by Sherman, Presson and
Agostinelli
(1984)
between “universally evaluated” and “variably evaluated”
attributes. Universally evaluated attributes are those attributes for which
there is general agreement as to which levels are good
or
bad (such as abilities
and distinctively [unldesirable traits and behaviours). Such agreement does
not exist for variably evaluated attributes (such as opinions
or
intrinsically
“neutral” behaviours). According to Sherman
el
af.
(1984),
which pole of
these attribute dimensions is good and which one
is
bad depends on one’s own
position. However,
it
seems more realistic to state that the desirability of any
given position is partly derived from the perceived distribution of the dimen-
sion in
the
general population. Indeed, apart from one’s own preference or
habit, the only indicator
of
a given position’s desirability or appropriateness
may be that “other people agree” or that “other people do the same thing”.
For universally evaluated attributes, the way to superiority is straightfor-
ward: namely,
to
possess positively valued attributes to
a
higher degree, and
negatively valued attributes to
a
lower degree, than do others, or, to share
positively valued attributes
with
relatively few people, and negatively valued
attributes with relatively many people. The self-related biases discussed
in
the
section above all belong to this category. For variably evaluated attributes,
however, in order to be at least as good as others,
it
is important
that
other
people share the same opinions and do the same things. However,
this
per-
ceived similarity should not be too perfect-after all, people do not want to be
anonymous fishes
in
an ocean
full
of fishes.
In
this regard, both false con-
sensus and false uniqueness may contribute to either the perception of superi-
ority or to the avoidance of inferiority.
At first sight, a paradox seems to exist between false consensus as a way of
establishing one’s superiority and the difference between oneself and others
implied by any other perception of superiority. This paradox can be resolved
if
one realises that false consensus does not necessarily imply that people tend
to perceive themselves to be
in
agreement
with
others. Rather, they may
instead perceive others as agreeing with them and thus supporting their posi-
tion. Since being the reference point in social comparison implies the superi-
ority of one’s position-either because one is considered the prototypical
group member or because one is implicitly assigned a trend-setting role-
finding others
to
conform to a certain degree to one’s attitudes or habits may
even reinforce one’s feelings of uniqueness or superiority.
This point brings us directly to another self-related bias whose relationship
to self-enhancement may not be clear at first sight: namely, self-other
Downloaded By: [KU Leuven Biomedical Library] At: 16:44 1 February 2011
SELF-ENHANCEMENT BIASES
133
asymmetry.
As
stated above, comparing others
to
oneself, and thus using
oneself as a point
of
reference, may imply some form
of
personal
superiority-especially
if
others are found to be similar to or to agree with
oneself. However, having to
use
others as the standard
of
comparison (and
especially admitting to the legitimacy
of
this situation by admitting one’s
similarity to them) implies a certain degree of inferiority. Therefore, empha-
sizing one’s own incomparability
to
others while describing them as highly
comparable to oneself may be just as much a form
of
perceived superiority as
are more direct demonstrations
of
the self-enhancement motive.
What
of
pluralistic ignorance-the one bias that has been claimed to imply
perceived inferiority?
A
closer
look
at some typical demonstrations
of
plur-
alistic ignorance shows that the phenomenon implies subjective inferiority
only if the desirability
of
a given attribute
is
defined narrowly.
For
instance, in
one of the studies described by Toch and Klofas
(1984)
it is assumed that high
school pupils share a norm
of
“toughness” that requires them not to show any
sensitivity towards their schools. In this light, experiencing intense emotional
reactions
to
violence against one’s school may be seen as undesirable and
therefore deviant. However,
if
the general population is taken as a reference
group, a mature and sensitive nature may become rather desirable
so
that
pupils admitting feelings
of
responsibility towards their environment (e.g.
their school) may view themselves as superior rather than inferior. Taken
together, then, there is no compelling evidence for pluralistic ignorance as an
unequivocal demonstration
of
perceived inferiority.
In this section self-related biases have been presented as more or less direct
manifestations
of
self-enhancement or the pervasive tendency to
see
oneself
as better than others. In the final section
of
this chapter, some theoretical and
heuristic implications of this view will be briefly outlined.
FURTHER THEORETICAL AND HEURISTIC
IMPLICATIONS
To
conclude, some implications
of
the proposed view
of
self-related biases are
presented. Firstly, the relationship between a self-enhancement view and cog-
nitive hypotheses concerning biases in social comparison is briefly explored.
Secondly, the heuristic value
of
the suggested system is demonstrated
by
pointing out some intriguing research questions that derive from it.
Self-enhancement
and
Cognitive Hypotheses
The central role assigned by the presently proposed integration to the motiva-
tional aspect of social comparison implies that self-related biases cannot
be
understood as merely cognitive and value-neutral distortions. However,
Downloaded By: [KU Leuven Biomedical Library] At: 16:44 1 February 2011
134
VERA
HOORENS
cognitive processes have been shown
to
significantly contribute to self-related
biases. How, then, should we think
of
the relationship between cognitive
hypotheses and a self-enhancement view? It will be remembered that motives
for social comparison are assumed to influence cognitive strategies which, in
turn, co-determine the outcome
of
the comparison process. In this regard,
self-enhancement constitutes the
why
of
self-related biases while cognitive
strategies constitute the
how
of
their emergence. Therefore, research and
theory on cognitive “explanations”
of
self-related biases and on their motiva-
tional background
form
a natural couple.
An integrative view may even encourage the evaluation
of
specific cogni-
tive hypotheses.
On
the one hand, hypotheses that have been formulated in
the context
of
a given bias may potentially apply
to
related phenomena. On
the other hand, an integration
of
biases that have been explained by cognitive
mechanisms may help identify conflicting assumptions. Such a cross-
inspiration may finally help
to
identify those cognitive processes that are truly
essential contributors
to
biases
in
social comparison.
As
an example
of
this,
consider the assumption
of
an underuse
of
base-rate information
in
the case
of
the Barnum effect and an overuse
of
base-rate information
in
unrealistic
optimism. Within the general framework
of
the present integration two poss-
ible explanations
of
this inconsistency can be identified. On the one hand, one
can examine the possibility that the differential use
of
this type of information
depends on whether
or
not attending to base-rate information can contribute
to a favourable view of the self. On the other hand, one can test the hypoth-
esis that processing base-rate information does not significantly contribute
to
self-related biases in itself. In any case, research questions
like
these can only
be identified when an integration
of
different biases is attempted.
Unanswered Questions
If self-related biases rest on a common fundamental base, the question arises
as to how they mutually influence each other.
For
instance, the self-other
asymmetry discussed above can also be considered a moderator phenomenon
co-determining the occurrence
of
other biases such as illusory superiority and
inferiority, false consensus, and false uniqueness. In an experimental situa-
tion, when people are encouraged to see the self as the reference point
of
social comparison, weaker biases can be expected to be reported than when
they are forced to take the comparison other as the point of reference.
For
imtance, Mullen
et
01.
(1985) and Mullen and Hu (1988) found a stronger false
consensus effect
if
subjects provided estimations
of
other people’s positions
before describing their own position rather than after describing their own
position. Instead of an asymmetry-effect moderating unrealistic optimism,
Hoorens and Buunk (1992a) found an increased probability
of
both negative
and positive prospects in both one’s own and other people’s lives
if
Downloaded By: [KU Leuven Biomedical Library] At: 16:44 1 February 2011
SELF-ENHANCEMENT
BIASES
135
estimations were given for one’s own future first. However, due
to
the specific
procedure used in their research, this pattern
of
results may have been caused
by anchor effects. Using larger intervals between responses
for
the different
target persons, by having subjects giving future estimations and trait applic-
ability ratings in immediate succession for each target person, Hoorens and
Buunk (1992b) found the predicted asymmetry effect for both illusory superi-
ority and unrealistic optimism.
As
noted above, stronger biases were obtained
in an other-self than in a self-other response order (Figure 5.2). However,
much work remains
to
be done on the interplay between different self-related
biases.
A
related question
is
which bias can be expected to occur
if
response
modalities simultaneously allow subjects to display different types
of
distor-
tion. If self-related biases at least partly serve a common goal, then it is likely
that whichever bias emerges must partly depend on the types
of
comparison
available in any given situation. Typically, in experimental settings, these
response modalities are
so
restricted
as
to allow only one type
of
bias to
become evident. In real life comparisons, however, many ways are open to
describe how one stands in comparison to others. The problem
of
which self-
related biases occur spontaneously
in
naturalistic settings therefore represents
a challenging research question.
Negatit
Self /Other
Positit
Self
0
Other
Negative Positive Negative Positit Negative
Other/Self Self/Other Other/ Sel
f
Prospects Characteristics
Figure
5.2
Mean estimated chances
of
positive
and
negative events and mean rated
applicability
of
positive and
negative
characteristics for oneself and another person
and
for
two
estimation and rating orders (self-other versus other-self)
Downloaded By: [KU Leuven Biomedical Library] At: 16:44 1 February 2011
136
VERA
HOORENS
CONCLUSION
An
overview
of
self-related biases
in
social
comparison
has been
given
and
some
major
conceptual
problems characterizing the domain
have
been identi-
fied.
A
self-enhancement
view
of
biases
in
social
comparison
has been
pre-
sented, allowing
a
theoretical integration
of
a
variety
of
phenomena including
false
consensus, false
uniqueness,
pluralistic ignorance, unrealistic optimism,
illusory
superiority,
the
sensitive
and multifaceted
self,
the
Barnum
effect,
and
the
self-other
asymmetry
in
social
comparison.
Based
on
this integration,
interesting
new
questions
emerge
which
may
eventually lead
to
a
better
un-
derstanding
of
self-related biases.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
The
author wishes to thank Bram Buunk,
Miles
Hewstone, Wolfgang Stroebe
and two
anonymous
reviewers
for
their extremely useful comments on
an
earlier version
of
the present paper. Special thanks are due
to
Peter Harris
and
to
the University
of
Hertfordshire
for
their help and hospitality during
the final phase
of
writing this chapter.
REFERENCES
Alicke,
M.D.
(1985). Global self-evaluation as determined by the desirability and
controllability of trait adjectives.
Journal
of
Personality and Sociol Psychology,
49,
Brewin, C.K.
&
Furnham,
A.
(1986). Attributional versus preattributional variables
in
self-esteem and depression:
a
comparison and test of learned helplessness theory.
Journal
of
Personality and Social Psychology,
50,
1013-20.
Brown,
J.D.
(1986). Evaluations of self and others: Self-enhancement biases
in
social
judgments.
Social Cognition,
4,353-76.
Buunk,
B.
&
Van Yperen,
N.W.
(1991). Referential comparisons, relational com-
parisons, and exchange orientation: Their relation to marital satisfaction.
fersonalify
and Social Psychology Bullerin,
17,710-18.
1
62
1-30.
Byrne,
D.
(1971).
The Atrraction Paradigm,
New York: Academic Press.
Campbell,
J.D.
(1986). Similarity and uniqueness: The effects of attribute type, relev-
ance, and individual differences
in
self-esteem and depression.
Joiirnal
of
Persoti-
ality and Social Psychology,
50,281-94.
Codol,
J.P.
(1975). On the so-called ‘superior conformity of the self‘ behavior:
Twenty
experimental investigations.
European Joitrnal
of
Social Psychology,
5,457-501.
Codol,
J.P.
(1986). Estimation el expression de
la
resemblance et de
la
difference
entre pairs.
L’Annte Psychologique,
86,
527-50.
Codol,
J.P.
(1987). Comparability and incomparability between oneself and others:
Means of differentiation and comparison reference points.
European Bulletin
of
Cognitive Psychology,
7,87-105.
Downloaded By: [KU Leuven Biomedical Library] At: 16:44 1 February 2011
SELF-EN€lANCEMENT
BIASES
137
Dawes,
R.
(1989). Statistical criteria for establishing a truly false consensus effect.
Journal
of
Experimental Social Psychology,
25,l-17.
DeJoy, D.M. (1989). The optimism bias and traffic accident risk perception.
Accident
Analysis and Prevention,
21,333-40.
Dunning, D., Meyerowitz, J.A.
&
Holzberg. A.D. (1989). Ambiguity and self-
evaluation: The role
of
idiosyncratic trait definitions in self-serving assessments
of
abilities.
Journal
of
Personality and Social Psychology,
57,
1082-90.
Festinger, L. (1954). A theory
of
social comparison processes.
Human Relations,
7,
117-40.
Forer,
B.R.
(1949). The fallacy
of
personal validation: A classroom demonstration
of
gullibility.
Joirrnal
of
Abnormal and Social Psychology,
44,
118-23.
Furnham,
A.
&
Brewin, C. (1988). Social comparison and depression.
Journal
of
Genetic Psychology,
149,191 -98.
Gilovich,
T.
(1990). Differential construal and the false consensus effect.
Journal
of
Personality and Socinl Psychology,
59,623-34.
Gilovich, T., Jennings, D.L.
&
Jennings,
S.
(1983). Causal focus and estimates
of
consensus: An examination
of
the false consensus effect.
Joiirnal
of
Personality and
Social Psychology,
45.
550-59.
Goethals,
G.R.
(1
986). Fabricating and ignoring social reality: Self-serving estimates
of
consensus.
In
J.M. Olson, C.P. Herman
&
M.P.
Zanna (Eds).
Social Comparison and
Relative Deprivation: The Ontario Symposiiim,
Vol.
4, Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum (pp.
Goethals, G.R., Messick, D.M.
&
Allison, S.T. (1991). The uniqueness bias: Studies
of
constructive social comparison.
In
J. Suls
&
T.A. Wills (Eds).
Social Comparison.
Contemporary Theory and Research,
Hillsdale NJ: Erlbaum (pp. 149-76).
Hardoin, M.
&
Codol, J.P. (1984). Descriptions de
soi
et
d’autrui: Influence de I’ordre
des descriptions sur les catkgories de rCponses utilisdes.
Cahiers de Psychologie
Cognitive,
4,295-302.
Heady,
B.
&
Wearing, A. (1988). The sense
of
relative superiority-central to well
being.
Social Indicntors Research,
20,497-5 16.
Hoorens,
V.
&
Buunk, A.P. (1992a). Onrealistisch optimisme met betrekking
tot
positieve en negatieve toekomstverwachtingen: De rol van sociale wenselijkheid
en
de vergelijkingsander.
In
N.
Ellemers, W. van der Kloot, T. Poppe
&
J.
van
der Pligt
(Eds).
Aindamentele sociale psychologie,
Vol.
6,
Tilburg: Tilburg University Press
Hoorens,
V.
&
Buunk, A.P. (1992b). Zelfdienende vertekeningen
in
sociale vergelijk-
ing: Illusoire superioriteit en onrealistisch optimisme.
Psychologica Belgica,
32,
Johnson, J.T. (1987). The heart
on
the sleeve and the secret self Estimations of the
hidden emotion
in
self and acquaintances.
Journal
of
Personality,
55,563-82.
Johnson, J.T., Cain, L.M., Falke, T.L., Hayman, J.
&
Perillo, E. (1985). The “Barnum
effect” revisited: Cognitive and motivational factors
in
the
acceptance
of
personality
descriptions.
Journal
of
Personnlity and Social Psychology,
49, 1378-91.
Judd, C.M.
&
Johnson, J.T. (1981). Attitudes, polarization, and diagnosticity: Explor-
ing
the
effect
of
affect.
Journal
of
Personality and Social Psychology,
41,2636.
Kuiper, N.A.
&
McDonald, M.R. (1982). Self and other perception
in
mild depressives.
Social Cognition,
1,223-39.
Marks,
G.
(1984). Thinking one’s abilities are unique and one’s opinions are common.
Personality and Socinl Psychology Bulletin,
10,203-8.
Marks,
G.
&
Duval,
S.
(1991). Availability
of
alternative positions and estimates
of
consensus.
British Joirrnnl
of
Social Psychology,
30,
179-83.
135-57).
(pp. 145-56).
169-94.
Downloaded By: [KU Leuven Biomedical Library] At: 16:44 1 February 2011
138
VERA HOORENS
Marks,
G.
&
Miller,
N.
(1987). Ten years
of
research on the false-consensus effect: An
empirical and theoretical review.
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,
102,
Martin, D.J., Abramson, L.Y.
&
Alloy, L.B. (1984). The illusion
of
control for
self
and
others
in
depressed and nondepressed college students.
Journal of Personality and
Social Psychology,
46,125-36.
McFarland, C.
&
Miller, D.T. (1990). Judgements
of
self-other similarity: Just like
other people, only more so.
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,
16,475-84.
Merton, R.K. (1957).
Social Theory and Social Structure,
Glencoe: Free Press of
Glencoe.
Meyer,
H.H.
(1980). Self-appraisal of job performance.
Personnel Psychology,
33,
Miller, D.T.
&
McFarland,
C.
(1987). Pluralistic ignorance: When similarity is inter-
preted as dissimilarity.
Journal
uf
Personality and Social Psychology,
53,298-305.
Miller, D.T.
&
McFarland,
C.
(1991). When social comparison goes awry: The case
of
pluralistic ignorance.
In
J. Suls
&
T.A. Wills (Eds).
Social Coniparison. Contempo-
rary Theory and Research,
Hillsdale: Erlbaum (pp. 287-313).
Monson, T.C., Tanke, ED.,
&
Lund,
J.
(1980). Determinants
of
social perception
in
a
naturalistic setting.
Journal
of
Research in Personality.
14,
104-20.
Mullen,
B.,
Atkins, J.L., Champion, D.S., Edwards, C., Hardy, D., Story,
J.E.
&
Van-
derklok, M. (1985). The false consensus effect: A meta-analysis of 115 hypothesis
tests.
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology,
21,262-83.
Mullen,
B.
&
Goethals,
G.R.
(1990). Social projection, actual consensus and valence.
British Journal
of
Social Psychology,
29,279-82.
Mullen, B.
&
Hu,
L.
(1988). Social projection as a function of cognitive mechanisms:
Two meta-analytic integrations.
British Journal of Social Psychology,
27,333-56.
O’Gorman, H.J.
&
Garry,
S.L. (1976). Pluralistic ignorance-a replication and extcn-
sion.
Public Opinion Quarterly,
40,449-58.
Perloff,
L.S.
(1987). Social comparison and illusions
of
invulnerability to negative
life
events.
In
C.R. Snyder
&
C.
Ford (Eds).
Coping with Negative Life Events: Clinical
and Psychological Perspectives,
New York: Plenum Press (pp. 217-42).
Perloff, L.S.
&
Fetzer, B.K. (1986). Self-other judgments and perceived vulnerability
to
victimization.
Journal
of
Personality
and
Social Psychology,
50,502-10.
Ross,
L.,
Greene,
D.
&
House, P. (1977). The ‘false consensus effect’: An egocentric
bias
in
social perception and attribution processes.
Journal of Experinzental Social
Psychology,
13,279-301.
Sande,
G.,
Goethals,
G.
&
Radloff,
C.
(1988). Perceiving one’s
own
traits and others’:
The multifaceted self.
Joirrnal of Personality and Social Psychology,
54,
13-20.
Sanders,
G.S.
&
Mullen, B. (1983). Accuracy
in
perceptions of consensus: Differential
tendencies of people
with
majority and minority positions.
Eiiropean Journal of
Social Psychology,
13,57-70.
Sears,
D.O.
(1983). The person-positivity bias.
Joiirnal
of
Personality and Social Psy-
Sherman, S.J., Chassin,
L.,
Presson, C.C.
&
Agostinelli,
G.
(1984). The role of
the
evaluation and similarity principles
in
the
false consensus effect.
Journal
of
Person-
ality and Social Psychology,
47,1244-62.
Sherman, S.J., Presson, C.C., Chassin, L., Corty, E.
&
Olshavsky,
R.
(1983). The false
consensus effect
in
estimates
of
smoking prevalence: Underlying mechanisms.
Per-
sonality and Social Psychology Biilletin,
9, 197-207.
Snyder, C.R. (1978). The ‘illusion’
of
uniqueness.
Journal
of
Humanistic Psychology,
18,3341.
72-90.
291-95.
chology,
44,233-50.
Downloaded By: [KU Leuven Biomedical Library] At: 16:44 1 February 2011
SELP-ENHANCEMENT
BIASES
139
Snyder, C.R.
&
Shenkel, R.J. (1975). Astrologers, handwriting analysts, and sometimes
psychologists use
the
P.T. Barnum effect.
Psychology 7oday,
8.52-54.
Snyder, C.R.
&
Shenkel, R.J. (1976). Effects of ‘favorability’, modality, and relevance
upon acceptance
of
general personality interpretations prior
to
and after receiving
diagnostic feedback.
Journal
of
Consulting and Clinical Psychology,
44,341.
Snyder, C.R., Shenkel, R.J.
&
Lowery, C.R. (1977). Acceptance of personality inter-
pretations: The ‘Barnum effect’ and beyond.
Joitrnal
of
Consulting and Clinical
Srull,
T.K.
&
Gaelick,
L.
(1983). General principles and individual differences in the
self as a habituale reference point: An examination
of
self-other judgments
of
similarity.
Social Cognition,
2, 108-21.
Suls, J.
&
Wan, C.K. (1987). In search
of
the false uniqueness phenomenon: fear and
estimates
of
social consensus.
Journal
of
Personality and Social Psychology,
52,
211-17.
Suls, J., Wan, C.K., Barlow, D.H.
&
Heimberg, R.G. (1990). The fallacy of uniqueness:
Social consensus perceptions
of
anxiety disorder patients and community residents.
Journal
of
Research in Personality,
24,415-32.
Suls, J., Wan, C.K.
&
Sanders, G.S. (1988). False consensus and false uniqueness
in
estimating the prevalence
of
health-protectivc behaviors.
Journal
of
Applied Social
Psychology,
18.66-79.
Swann, W.B., Jr., Pelham, B.W.
&
Krull.
D.S.
(1989). Agreeable fancy or disagreeable
truth? Reconciling self-enhancement and self-verification.
Journal
of
Personality
and Social Psychology,
57,782-91.
Toch, H.
&
Klofas, J. (1984). Pluralistic ignorance, revisited.
In
G.M. Stephenson
&
J.H. Davis (Eds).
Progress in Applied Social Psychology,
Vol.
2, New York: Wiley
Van Yperen, N.W.
&
Buunk, B.P. (1991). lllusoire superioriteit: het verband met het
belang van de verifieerbaarheid van de vergelijkingsdimensies.
In
J.
van der Pligt, W.
van der
Kloot
&
M. Poppe
(Eds).
Atndclrnenrele sociale psychologie.
Vol.
5,
Tilburg:
Tilburg University Press (pp. 186-200).
Weinstein, N.D. (1980). Unrealistic optimism about future life events.
Journal
of
Per-
sonality and Social Psychology,
39,806-20.
Weinstein, N.D. (1987). Unrealistic optimism about susceptibility to health problems:
Conclusions from a community-wide sample.
Journal
of
Behavioral Medicine,
10,
Weinstein, N.D. (1989). Optimistic biases about personal risks.
Science,
246,1232-33.
Weinstein, N.D.
&
Lachendro, E. (1982). Egocentrism as a source
of
unrealistic optim-
ism.
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,
8,
195-200.
White, P.A.
&
Younger, D.P. (1988). Differences
in
the ascription
of
transient internal
states
to
self and other.
Joiirnal
of
Experimental Social Psychology,
24,292-309.
Wood, J.V. (1989).
Theory
and research concerning social comparisons
of
personal
attributes.
Psychological Bulletin,
106,231-48.
Psychology,
45,104-14.
(pp. 129-59).
481-500.
Downloaded By: [KU Leuven Biomedical Library] At: 16:44 1 February 2011
... Self-enhancement drives a variety of selfrelated superiority biases. Central among these are the better-than-average bias in which people tend to rate themselves higher than the average person (Hoorens, 1993;Alicke et al., 2001) and the self-serving bias where people attribute success to their own abilities and failure to external factors (Sedikides & Alicke, 2018;Hoorens, 1993;Pronin & Kugler, 2007). Other biases such as the introspection illusion and naïve realism can also contribute to the bias blind spot (Pronin, 2009;Pronin & Kugler, 2007;Yan et al., 2016). ...
... Self-enhancement drives a variety of selfrelated superiority biases. Central among these are the better-than-average bias in which people tend to rate themselves higher than the average person (Hoorens, 1993;Alicke et al., 2001) and the self-serving bias where people attribute success to their own abilities and failure to external factors (Sedikides & Alicke, 2018;Hoorens, 1993;Pronin & Kugler, 2007). Other biases such as the introspection illusion and naïve realism can also contribute to the bias blind spot (Pronin, 2009;Pronin & Kugler, 2007;Yan et al., 2016). ...
... Existing studies on self-recognition have repeatedly shown self-serving bias in the evaluation of one's attributes [3]. The most well-recognized illustration of this phenomena is "the Lake Wobegon effect" according to which the majority of people estimate their ability "above average" in several domains such as understanding of humour, driving skills, intellectual ability, and socially desirable personality traits [4,5]. When feedback about one's ability and traits is delivered, positive appraisals are more likely to be integrated into self-evaluation than negative appraisals, which makes self-serving bias even stronger [3]. ...
Article
Full-text available
Representation of self-face is vulnerable to cognitive bias, and consequently, people often possess a distorted image of self-face. The present study sought to investigate the neural mechanism underlying distortion of self-face representation by measuring event-related potentials (ERPs) elicited by actual, aesthetically enhanced, and degraded images of self-face. In addition to conventional analysis of ERP amplitude and global field power, multivariate analysis based on machine learning of single trial data were integrated into the ERP analysis. The multivariate analysis revealed differential pattern of scalp ERPs at a long latency range to self and other familiar faces when they were original or aesthetically degraded. The analyses of ERP amplitude and global field power failed to find any effects of experimental manipulation during long-latency range. The present results indicate the susceptibility of neural correlates of self-face representation to aesthetical manipulation and the usefulness of the machine learning approach in clarifying the neural mechanism underlying self-face processing.
... An individual creates a biased social reality to reflect his/her motivation (Kunda, 1990)-such as the motivation to maintain a positive feeling of oneself (Hoorens, 1993) or the motivation to avoid unpleasant cognitive dissonance (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959). Scholars have demonstrated how people engage in biased attention to information. ...