Everyone Thinks They’re More Moral Than Everyone Else

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Photo: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images

There’s been a lot of talk over the past week about the “filter bubble” — the ideological cocoon that each of us inhabits, blinding us to opposing views. As my colleague Drake wrote the day after the election, the filter bubble is why so many people were so blindsided by Donald Trump’s win: They only saw, and only read, stories assuming that it wouldn’t happen.

Our filter bubbles are defined by the people and ideas we choose to surround ourselves with, but each of us also lives in a one-person bubble of sorts, viewing the world through our own distorted sense of self. The way we view ourselves in relation to others is a constant tug-of-war between two opposing forces: On one end of the spectrum is something called illusory superiority, a psychological quirk in which we tend to assume that we’re better than average — past research has found it to be true in people estimating their own driving skills, parents’ perceived ability to catch their kid in a lie, even cancer patients’ estimates of their own prognoses. And on the other end of the spectrum, there’s “social projection,” or the assumption that other people share your abilities or beliefs.

And according to a study published last month in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science and recently highlighted by Alex Fradera in BPS Research Digest, morality falls squarely within the former category — that is, people tend to believe they’re more much more moral than most everyone around them.

“There are some contexts where it makes sense to view your own qualities as unusual,” Fradera wrote. One is objectively measurable traits, like IQ or speed-reading or time on the 100-yard dash. The other is things that are particularly narrow and of limited practical value — things where you would have “no reason to think that [the skill] should be typical of others.” For example, “If it strikes me one day that I have a peculiar strength — say that I’m far better at observing canine hunger than any other doggy state — it wouldn’t make sense to assume that everyone else has this peculiar skill too.”

Morality, to state the obvious, falls into neither of those categories. And yet the participants of the study, led by University of London psychologists Ben Tappin and Ryan McKay, nevertheless saw themselves as snowflakes in a sea of amoral others. As Fradera explained: 

The researchers recruited 270 participants from an online portal and asked them to rate themselves and the average person on 30 traits, and to rate the desirability of each one. A third of the traits related to the domain of morality (e.g., honest, principled), a third sociability (warm, family oriented) and a third agency (hard working, competent), and Tappin and McKay computed how similar each participant was to the rest of the sample on each of these domains. 

The result: “Virtually all individuals irrationally inflated their moral qualities,” the authors wrote, much more so than in any other category of self-assessment. “Taken together, these findings suggest that moral superiority is a uniquely strong and prevalent form of ‘positive illusion.’” Tappin and McKay didn’t offer a reason why this might be the case — but regardless, it’s just one more example of how deep our invisible divisions can run.