We’re Not Good at Estimating Our Goodness

by Amy Hall

Here’s an interesting study with theological implications:

[A] team led by Constantine Sedikides has surveyed 85 incarcerated offenders at a prison in South East England about their prosocial traits. The inmates were aged 18 to 34 and the majority had been jailed for acts of violence and robbery….

Compared with “an average prisoner” the participants rated themselves as more moral, kinder to others, more self-controlled, more law-abiding, more compassionate, more generous, more dependable, more trustworthy, and more honest. Remarkably, they also rated themselves as higher on all these traits than “an average member of the community”, with one exception – law-abiding. The prisoners rated themselves as equivalent on this trait relative to an average community member.

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Sedikides and his team say these results show the better-than-average effect cannot be explained by the fact that most participants are in fact better than average. In this case, they said there was “good reason to assume that the average non-prisoner is more honest and law abiding than the average prisoner.”

Past research (pdf) on intellectual performance has shown that it is weaker performers who most over-estimate their own ability. Sedikides and his colleagues wondered if their new results add to this pattern, and raise the possibility of a more general tendency for those with especially poor skills or detrimental behavioural habits to lack insight into their own person.

I encountered this once, years ago, when I came across a blog post written by an incarcerated murderer, wherein he mentioned he was “a good person.” I was stunned—not because of how wrong that particular person obviously was, but because at that moment I realized just how deep the human capacity for self-deception is…

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We’re Not Good at Estimating Our Goodness – Stand to Reason Blog


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