I’d never have made that mistake . . .

Tue, Jul 23, 2013, 01:00

If you and I had been in charge of government and the banks when those guys – you know who I mean – were ruining the economy, it would all have worked out so very differently wouldn’t it? We would have seen the various express trains hurtling along the tracks in our direction and taken evasive action. Today, the Irish people would bask in the warmth of a sunny economy, oblivious to the disaster you and I would have averted.

Except that it would not have been like that. In all likelihood, we would have made the same mistakes the other guys made and we would have ended up in precisely the same mess we are in right now.

The notion that you and I would have known better is called the “holier than thou” phenomenon. The evidence shows that we live in a state of delusion, especially when it comes to judging what we would do compared to what the crowd would do.

For instance, asked how likely it is that we will donate to charity, we consistently see the probability that we will donate as significantly higher than the probability that other people will give. But when our actual activities are tracked, it turns out we’re no better than the rest.

One of the more humbling things about this is that when our peers are asked how likely we are to give, they are more likely to be right than we are. But of course they are more likely to be wrong about their own generosity.

It goes further: any of us who has ever been an employee has probably convinced ourselves and each other that we could do a far better job than the clowns in management. When one of us graduates from the herd into management, do we do a better job than the old crowd? Probably not.

We apply the same assumptions to our own future. We tend to see other people’s future as constrained by their abilities, experience and track record. But with ourselves, it’s different. “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul,” we sing as we march into a deluded new dawn.

Our friends are more accurate than us at predicting how long our latest romance will last, how well we will do in exams and how likely we are to be promoted.

There are exceptions. People from societies (such as Spain) that place a higher value on the social group are less likely to fall for the holier than thou phenomenon. They are more likely to see themselves as performing similarly to the group.

Private doubts
The other exception is in the area of private doubts, opinions about ourselves that we are reluctant to share with others. For instance we often see ourselves as more shy, indecisive or self-critical than other people.

It has even been suggested by researchers that college students who have reservations about excessive drinking fail to recognise that other students have similar reservations. As a result, they may go on a binge with the crowd, not realising that many others in the group share their own views. The same goes for secret fears about casual sex – people never get to learn that others have the same insecurities as themselves.

Outside of these private areas though, we’re back to the old holier than thou phenomenon. It would seem the only way to get a really good fix on ourselves is to ask our peers and to take them seriously. That’s a truly scary thought and I expect most of us would prefer delusion.

David Dunning of Cornell University has done much of the research in this area. You can read an article of his from the June issue of The Psychologist at http://bit.ly/holierthanthou


Padraig O’Morain (pomorain@yahoo.com) is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book Light Mind –
Mindfulness for Daily Living
is published by Veritas. His mindfulness newsletter is free by email.

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