We’re wired to believe we’re good people—or at least not as bad as everyone else

We all have a holier-than-thou attitude.
We all have a holier-than-thou attitude.
Image: Reuters/Max Rossi
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Say I pass a volunteer who’s collecting for a worthy cause. Do I donate? Hard to say. I give on some occasions. But on plenty of others, I skip the charity box and keep my money for selfish ends. Altruism-wise, I’m not so different from other people.

Now let’s say that volunteer turns away for a minute, leaving the donation box unwatched. Do I reach in and swipe a few dollars? Of course not. I am a decent person. I would never do such a thing. Can’t say the same for other people, though. Other people are the worst.

One of the strangest characteristics of an individual-centered Western culture is that almost all of us suspect we are more ethical than the average.

In a new paper published this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a pair of researchers from the University of Chicago analyzed this collective self-righteousness more closely. They found that while we all think we’re better than everyone else, we perceive this superiority in a very specific way. We think we’re more moral than others sometimes, but less evil than others always.

“Instead of viewing themselves through rose-colored glasses, people may view themselves through the equivalent of rose-colored bifocals,” said Nadav Klein, an author along with Booth School of Business professor Nicholas Epley.

In a series of experiments, participants were asked to evaluate the likelihood of themselves or others to do various moral or immoral behaviors. Respondents did not rate themselves more likely to do good works. Yet they regularly assumed they were more likely than others to avoid immoral acts. They also deemed instances of others’ unethical behavior as more extreme and memorable than their own choices.

But the way we think about ourselves can produce counterintuitive consequences. A scientist who doesn’t believe he or she would ever manipulate data might be lazy about putting controls in place that would prevent that from occurring, the researchers point out. Doctors who believe themselves impervious to influence from drug companies might not support lobbying reform.

One reason we see ourselves as more ethical is because we know the circumstances that motivate our own behavior. For others, we’re forced to make assumptions based on observations. I cut someone off in traffic only reluctantly because I was going to miss my exit, we might reason. That guy did it because he’s a jerk. When people are given information about others’ motivating circumstances, that sense of superiority disappears.

Furthermore, we have a strong need to think of ourselves as good people—in the authors’ words, to maintain a positive “moral self-concept.” Helping an elderly person across the street may not change the way we think of ourselves, but shoving an elderly person out of your path does. Hence our need to believe we’d never engage in the latter.

At least, I know I wouldn’t.