Overlooking one’s own flaws

Steve Simon


Can we ever be truly objective about ourselves? Maybe not. A recent article in Scientific American by Michael Shermer, The Enchanted Glass, talks about the tendency to see ourselves more positively than our peers. For example, when asked the probability that certain people will go to heaven, the surveyors listed Bill Clinton at 52%, Mother Theresa at 79% and so forth. But these same people rated their own probability at 87%. Shermer also cites an experiment where research subjects were randomly assigned to receive either high or low marks on a “social intelligence” test. When asked about the quality of the test, those receiving low marks were more critical of the fairness and utility of the test.

A closely related concept appears in a 1998 Annual Review of Psychology article by Robert MacCoun which is available in web format or pdf format. People are more likely to find flaws in research that they strongly disagree with and are more likely to overlook flaws in research that they agree with. It’s partly for this reason that I like to use examples of Complementary and Alternative Medicine in my teaching. Most students have their skeptical viewpoint turned up to full power when I talk about things like homeopathy. The trick, then, is to get them to recognize the critical reasons for mistrusting this type of research and then getting them to apply it to areas that are more traditional.

Adam Elga has a nice article in pdf format about the tendency to be uncritical or unskeptical about one’s own personal beliefs. Two excellent books by Thomas Gilovich, Why People Believe Weird Things and How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life, are also worth reading.

You can find an earlier version of this page on my original website.