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I’m going to try to enter this topic as gently and politely as possible. It’s a tough topic—a tender topic. Illusionary Superiority: something nearly all of us have, especially in North America, and it can cause some problems, big problems.
“Psychologist Jean Twenge and her colleagues compiled the data and found that over the last four decades there’s been a dramatic rise in the number of students who describe themselves as being ‘above average.’” (How College Students Think They are More Special Than EVER: Study Reveals Rocketing Sense of Entitlement on U.S. Campuses, Jan. 2013, dailymail.co UK) The problem with our ‘above average’ students of today is that they are actually not really above average. “While students are much more likely to call themselves gifted in writing abilities, objective test scores actually show that their writing abilities are far less than those of their 1960’s counterparts.” Cultures where modesty and self-improvement were emphasized less illusionary superiority was found. “North Americans seem to be the kings and queens of overestimation. If you go to places like Japan, Korea or China, this whole phenomenon evaporates.’” (Why We’re All Above Average, Feb. 7, 2013, seeker.com) Our college kids inflating their talents and ambitions are not without consequences. Studies have shown that deluded self-confidence leads to anxiety and depression as the actual results of their efforts do not match up to their inflated assessment of their skills. What is also interesting in the decades-long study regarding how college kids estimated themselves was that the eras where the kids were the most modest worked longer hours than kids today who felt they were ‘above average.’ The kids who did work longer hours (the modest kids) generally produced better scores.
It’s not just college kids that suffer from illusionary superiority. Nearly all drivers believe they are ‘above average’ drivers, which is hilariously statistically impossible. “It’s a scientific fact: nearly everyone thinks he’s an above-average driver, but we grade others more harshly than we do ourselves." (Road Warrior: Science Says You’re Probably Not as Good a Driver as You Think by Tom Shortell, Nov. 15, 2017, mcall.com) The list goes on and on. In an article reporting on a scientific study surrounding moral superiority, it was once again found that people tend to over-estimate their moral and character qualities while under-estimating others’. The authors of the scientific paper felt this was a very concerning example of illusionary superiority. “‘When opposing sides are convinced of their own righteousness,’ Tappin and McKay wrote, ‘escalation of violence is more probable, and the odds of resolution are ominously low.’” (Do You Suffer From Illusions Of Moral Superiority? Jan. 23, 2017, NPR)
David Dunning is a psychologist at Cornell University who has studied illusionary superiority for years. “It happens for many reasons: others are too polite to say what they really think, incompetent people lack the skills to assess their abilities accurately, and such self-delusions can actually protect peoples’ mental health [David Dunning].” (Why We’re All Above Average, Feb. 7, 2013, Seeker.com) Dr. Dunning offers a variety of ways we can inflate ourselves and yet not others. Overall, he says that most people tend to pretty accurately assess other peoples’ skills and qualities, yet, over inflate our own. Even in charity, “And Dunning has found that people overestimate how charitable they’ll be in the future donation drives, but accurately guess their peers’ donations.” Its notable to mention that people with anxiety and depression, especially depression, tend not to overestimate themselves. He has also found (as had other scientists) that the least competent often have the highest level of illusionary superiority.
Okay, it’s a very harsh idea. There is a high statistical chance that most of us are inflating ourselves in at least a few areas of our lives. It might be how morally good a person we are. It might be how well we drive. It might be how intelligent or charitable we are. However, it is a good splash of cold water I think, especially in our current era of ever-increasing rigid, confident, and aggressive discourse people are having regarding social, political, legal, and religious beliefs. There is a huge chance none of us are as brilliant and awesome as we think we are. Additionally, there is a lot of evidence pointing towards modesty as actually delivering very positive life outcomes. So, perhaps being a little less confident that your opinion is correct might lead you to a better life. With that said, in the spirit of suggesting that most of us could really use a crow-only diet for awhile, I will share with you a true story of where my mind went off the rails.
It was in the middle of July, and it was one of the most perfect days in the middle of one of the most perfect summers. I was at Target, and I was in a really good mood. I had been religiously working out and eating healthy and was feeling good in my skin. I decided to get a few fun summer clothing items as more than ever I was feeling the joy of the season. I fell in love with what could be called a strapless romper or short-jumpsuit (or perhaps even a onesie). It was made of soft, thin terry cloth. It was strapless and almost was like a tube top that cinched at the waist with a drawstring tie; then it continued into very short, snug shorts. I remember looking long and hard at myself in the mirror, turning often to check out my rear. I remember liking very much what I was seeing. I liked the terry cloth onesie so much that I even bought two: one was lime green, and one was gray. That is how much I liked the strapless romper. Around two weeks later my husband and I were throwing a BBQ. I had not yet donned my strapless, shorty-shorts romper and felt this dinner party would be its perfect debut. I remember showering, doing my hair, my makeup…then at the last-minute slipping on my lime green onesie. The guests were due in around 15 minutes, and I was pleased I would have a little time to open the wine and put out the snacks. My husband was standing at the foot of the stairs when I came trotting down, and when he saw me, he turned bright beet red.
“Sweetie,” he said in a somewhat high-pitched voice, “are you wearing that tonight?”
I said, “Yes, why?” It was clear by his face something was wrong.
My husband cleared his throat and very softly said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” He then looked like he was seriously going to faint or get sick as he had never said something like that to me before.
I then looked down. The shorts were about as short as a swimsuit. The onesie was about as tight as a swimsuit. Really it was only the terry cloth fabric that turned it into clothes. I ran upstairs and studied myself in the mirror. I looked utterly ridiculous. How on earth did I think in that Target dressing room that this outfit was a good thing for me? This was not a shorts romper for anyone above 15. I mean even an 18 or 19-year-old would look a little desperate in it. The funny thing was that I had worked at a department store, and I remember grimacing every time I saw a woman north of 30 shopping in the juniors’ department. Clothes meant for a teenager never look good on a grown woman. And yet, a high self-esteem moment, brought on by sticking to my diet and exercise goals, had completely landed me in serious Delusionville. I was so embarrassed as I slipped it off and put on a cotton sundress instead.
I actually still have both of the rompers, and I do completely love them. Excepting now I wear them when I get out of the shower and do my hair and makeup. And every time I put one on—and especially when my husband sees me in one—we both burst out laughing about my moment of delusionary body confidence at Target.
Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.”
Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.