People, as we know, have mixed abilities. One person might be more skilled than average when it comes physical ability, but lack judgment. Others excel when it comes to the ability to buckle down and work hard, but aren't the most inspired. But not you. You're very good at everything... at least that's what we all tell ourselves, thanks to the illusion of superiority.
We are All the Most Talented
To take the top layer off this illusion, start asking around about basic skills. Ask people, as researchers for an infamous study did, how they rate when compared to other drivers. About 93% of people consider themselves "above average" drivers. They weren't asked about their driving records, or whether they met some standard of safe driving. They were asked how they compared to other people. It's impossible for 93% of them to be above average. (Although it does make me curious about how bad those last 7% of drivers were. They're probably dead by now.)
This isn't an affliction limited to us poor, ignorant plebeians; 94% of college professors thought they were above average, when it came to their job performance, and nearly a third of workers at a software company thought the were better than 19 out of 20 of their fellow workers. (Only 19? What a modest profession.) We don't all believe that we're at the top of our field, but no matter what we do, we generally think we're a bit better than most people at it. Add all those skills together and we are exceptional human beings. By why are we so exceptional?
We All Have the Purest Hearts
What's the last really good book you read, and why did you read it? Perhaps you read it because you have intellectual curiosity, or an appreciation for art, or always want to learn more. What about the last really good book the person across the bus from you read? It was probably because a movie was coming out, right?
This is the extrinsic incentives bias at work. We believe that all the good things that drive us are intrinsic to our character. Other people? Not so much. We work hard because we are dedicated, while they just want higher pay. We go back to school because we love to learn. Other people probably sat next to a motivational poster on a bus. We join the Peace Corps because we want to make a difference. Other people want to take a break before they have to start working. Our excellence in all our pursuits springs from the fact that we have a finer soul. Other people just happened to come to the same conclusion because they were pushed by circumstance. No wonder we're better than average.
We Won't Change
Have you understood the point of this article? Intellectually, you might have. Viscerally? Not a chance. Sure, we all know that blowhard in the office who is absolutely convinced that they're 10 times as good as they actually are. We all know those nutball drivers who swerve around the highway gesturing out the window at everyone else. We see through them. And we might admit that we're not so good at driving, or at certain aspects of our jobs. But do we really think that we're in the bottom third of something important to us? The bottom fifth? The sad group of losers in the bottom 10%? Somebody has to be down there. Why not us? Well, because we're us.
What keeps us in this particular cycle is the illusion of asymmetric insight. We know, absolutely know, that the people around us have their little illusions about their skill and their intrinsic qualities, but we don't see ourselves as having the same biases. We can't admit that we're careless, or lazy, or hateful. We don't really think that the only reason that we gave to charity or picked up "The Complete Works of Sir Walter Scott" was that cute librarian was watching. We just know that that's what other people do and we know it because our minds are so superior.