The Illusory Superiority Cognitive Bias

illusory superiority

Illusory superiority is a cognitive bias where individuals tend to overestimate their own qualities and abilities relative to others. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the superiority bias.

People affected by illusory superiority tend to believe they are better than average in various aspects of life, such as intelligence, skill, or moral values.

Some key features of illusory superiority include:

  • Overconfidence: People may have an inflated sense of their own skills.
  • Self-serving bias: Individuals are more likely to attribute their successes to their abilities and their failures to external factors.

The exact opposite is also the case. Depression can be exacerbated by “depressive realism,” or an all-too-real understanding of one’s own limits.

Illusory superiority, also known as the above-average effect, the leniency error, the superiority bias, and the sense of relative superiority, has been a topic of interest in psychological research for decades. Early studies in the 20th century found that people rated themselves consistently as better-than-average in various areas, such as leadership, driving ability, and academic performance. The well-known Dunning-Kruger effect is a type of illusory superiority displayed by people performing a task in which their knowledge or level of skill is low.

Superiority Illusion Psychological Mechanisms

This bias manifests through various psychological mechanisms, such as self-enhancement and positive illusions. One of the most common cognitive biases related to illusory superiority is egocentrism, which refers to the tendency for people to perceive the world from their own perspective and place themselves at the center of events.

Egocentrism often shapes people’s beliefs and attitudes in social interaction. For instance, individuals might attribute their achievements to their skills and hard work, while blaming external factors for their failures. This phenomenon, closely related to self-serving bias, reinforces the illusion of personal superiority and contributes to maintaining a positive self-image.


Another explanation for the better-than-average effect is focalism, the idea that the thing that is the focus of attention is given more weight. When asking participants to make comparisons, most studies of the better-than-average effect place a higher emphasis on the self (the question is frequently framed with the self-given before the comparison target—”compare yourself to the average person”).

According to focalism, this indicates that the individual will self-evaluate their own ability or quality more than the comparison target. This also implies that, in theory, if the questions in an experiment on the better-than-average effect were written in such a way that the self and other were reversed (e.g., “compare the average peer to yourself”), the better-than-average effect would be reduced.

One study from Windschitl, Kruger, and Simms (2003) conducted focalism research, focusing specifically on the better-than-average effect, and discovered that asking participants to estimate their ability and likelihood of success in a task resulted in lower estimations when they were asked about others’ chances of success rather than their own.

Selective Recruitment

Selective recruiting is the idea that while making peer comparisons, an individual chooses their own strengths and the weaknesses of others in order to appear superior overall. Weinstein (1980) tested this notion for the first time, albeit in an experiment linked to optimistic bias rather than the better-than-average effect.

Participants in the study rated certain behaviors as likely to raise or decrease the likelihood of a sequence of life events occurring to them. Individuals showed reduced optimistic bias when they were able to see the answers of others.

The psychologists Linda Perloff and B.K. Fetzer proposed in a 1986 study that when making peer comparisons on a specific characteristic, an individual chooses a comparison target—the peer to whom he is being compared—with lower abilities. Perloff and Fetzer tested this idea by asking participants to compare themselves to specific comparison targets such as a close friend,.

The study found that illusory superiority diminished when they were directed to imagine a specific individual rather than broad constructs such as “the average peer.” However, these results are not totally valid and may be influenced by the fact that people enjoy their close friends more than an “average peer” and may thus rank their friend as higher than average, resulting in the friend not being an objective comparison target.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a cognitive bias that causes people with limited knowledge or skills in a particular domain to overestimate their abilities while experts tend to underestimate theirs. This effect was first observed by Kruger and Dunning in their 1999 study, which found that individuals with low performance in specific areas often displayed illusory superiority due to their inability to self-assess their abilities accurately.

A key contributing factor to the Dunning-Kruger Effect is the role of metacognition — the ability to evaluate one’s own cognitive processes and adjust them accordingly. It has been observed that people with low metacognitive skills are more likely to exhibit the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Social and Cultural Influences

Besides cognitive biases, social and cultural factors also play a significant role in the development of illusory superiority. Research suggests that the need for self-enhancement and positive self-affirmation is deeply rooted in human psychology. This need can be intensified by societal pressures and the desire to conform to cultural norms and expectations.

For example, people may feel compelled to compare themselves with others in order to assess their social standing. This process of social comparison often leads to the overvaluation of one’s own attributes and the underestimation of others, resulting in the illusion of superiority. Additionally, cultural backgrounds that promote individualism and self-reliance may encourage the development of this cognitive bias.

Consequences of Illusory Superiority

Illusory superiority often appears in both educational and professional settings. A common example is when individuals overestimate their performance or abilities in comparison to others.

This can lead to unrealistic expectations and disappointments when the reality of their skills is revealed. For instance, students may rate themselves as having above-average intelligence, while their actual grades may not support their self-perception.

Similarly, in the workplace, employees might exhibit illusory superiority by overestimating their job-related skills and accomplishments. They may feel more competent than their peers, even when the evidence suggests otherwise.

Such overconfidence can lead to conflicts, tension, and decreased collaboration within teams. It is important for both students and employees to regularly assess their skills and abilities in a realistic, neutral, and clear manner.

Mental Health

Historically, psychology has considered that generally correct self-perceptions are necessary for healthy mental health. Taylor and Brown stated in a 1988 paper that mentally healthy people often exhibit three cognitive illusions: illusion of superiority, illusion of control, and optimism bias.

This theory quickly gained traction, with some authorities suggesting that purposely inducing these biases would be therapeutic. Further research has both challenged that finding and provided new evidence linking illusory superiority to detrimental impacts on the individual.

According to one line of argument, the Taylor and Brown paper classified persons as mentally healthy or unhealthy based on self-reports rather than objective criteria. People who are prone to self-enhancement will overstate their level of well-being.

One study found that “defensive deniers,” who are most susceptible to positive illusions, were present in “mentally normal” groups. According to one longitudinal study, self-enhancement biases are connected with poor social skills and psychological maladjustment.

Interpersonal Relations

The impact of illusory superiority doesn’t only affect individuals but also extends to their interpersonal relationships. Overconfidence in one’s abilities can lead to a lack of empathy for others’ struggles. This mindset may cause an individual to think that others bear personal responsibility for their difficulties, creating a barrier in building compassionate relationships.

In the realm of social comparisons, illusory superiority may result in unfavorable relationships with peers. The perception of oneself being superior to others can make it challenging to connect with those who are perceived as “less competent.” Alternatively, it might hinder collaboration due to excessive pride, negatively affecting group dynamics and teamwork.

Lastly, illusory superiority can contribute to societal divides and stifle growth. When people possess a skewed sense of their own competence, they may be less willing to learn from others or work collectively to tackle challenges. As a result, illusory superiority may act as an obstacle to progress in both individual development and societal advancement.

Criticism and Counterarguments

The concept of illusory superiority has been subject to various academic debates. One point of contention is the strength of the illusion, with some researchers arguing that it is less prevalent than initially thought. Fisher and Keil (2014) showed that the strength of the illusion can be predicted by the strength of care an individual has towards the matter, implying that the illusion might not have as significant an impact in some cases as it does in others.

Another debate surrounds the role of counterarguments in reducing the illusory superiority effect. The same 2014 study found that explicitly considering counterarguments can help to remove the illusion. This suggests that individuals can overcome the cognitive bias by actively seeking alternative perspectives.

Limitations of Research

Some limitations of the research on illusory superiority have also been identified. For example, researchers have pointed out that the methodology used in certain studies might not paint a fully accurate picture of the phenomenon.

A critical analysis by John McClure of some of these studies emphasizes the need for more robust accounting and adjustment procedures to ensure that cognitive illusions are not misrepresented.

Furthermore, the generalizability of findings remains a crucial aspect to consider. Vasco Correia, in his paper the Ethics of Argumentation, suggests that different groups might experience the illusory superiority bias differently, depending on factors such as culture, education, and socio-economic background. This implies that future research should aim to accommodate a wider range of contexts and populations to effectively capture the nature of illusory superiority.

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