I am always baffled when I watch a reality show like America’s Got Talent and a contestant bounds onto the stage brimming with confidence. They then go on to showcase a truly appalling act.

It’s not that the acts are so bad, it is the shock on their faces when the judges tell them the ugly truth. 

It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. But how do these people go through life believing they are so talented when in fact, they are toe-curlingly dreadful? 

There could be several factors at play here, but I believe they are suffering from ‘illusory superiority’. 

What Is Illusory Superiority?

Illusory superiority is also known as the Superiority Illusion, the ‘better than average’ bias, or the ‘illusion of confidence’. It is a cognitive bias that is similar to the Dunning-Kruger Effect.  

All cognitive biases result from our brain trying to make sense of the world. They are our interpretation of information that usually confirms some self-serving narrative. 

Illusory superiority is when a person widely overestimates their abilities. Don’t be confused, however, because illusory superiority isn’t about being confident and capable. It specifically describes people who are unaware of their lack of abilities but mistakenly believe these abilities to be much greater than they are. 

Dunning & Kruger first identified this illusion of superiority in their study ‘Unskilled and Unaware of it’. Researchers gave grammar tests to college students and found two interesting results. 

The worse a student performed, the better they rated their abilities, whereas the best student underestimated how well they had done. 

In other words, illusory superiority describes how the more incompetent a person is, the more they overestimate their ability. Depressive realism is the term for people who are competent that dramatically underestimate their abilities. 

“The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts while the stupid ones are full of confidence.” – Charles Bukowski

Two Factors of Illusory Superiority

Researchers Windschitl et al. showed two factors that affect illusory superiority:

  • Egocentrism
  • Focalism 

Egocentrism is where a person can only see the world from their point of view. Thoughts about themselves are more important than knowledge of others.

For example, if something happens to an egocentric person, they believe it will have a greater effect on them than on other people. 

Focalism is where people place too much emphasis on a single factor. They focus their attention on one thing or object without considering other outcomes or possibilities. 

For example, a football fan might focus on his or her team winning or losing so much so that they forget to enjoy and watch the game. 

Examples of Illusory Superiority

The most common example that many people can relate to is their own driving skills. 

We all like to think that we are good drivers. We believe we are experienced, confident and careful on the roads. Our driving is ‘better than average’ than other people. But of course, we can’t all be better than average, only 50% of us can be. 

However, in one study, over 80% of people rated themselves as above-average drivers. 

And these trends don’t end at driving. Another study tested perceptions of popularity. Undergraduates rated their popularity over others. When it came to rating against their friends, the undergrads over-enhanced their own popularity, despite evidence to the contrary. 

The problem with illusory superiority is that it is difficult to spot it if you suffer from it. Dunning refers to this as a ‘double burden’:

“…not only does their incomplete and misguided knowledge lead them to make mistakes, but those same deficits also prevent them from recognizing when they are making mistakes.” Dunning

So how can you spot the signs?

8 Signs You Are Suffering from Illusory Superiority

  1. You believe that good and bad things have a greater impact on you than other people.
  2. You tend to seek out patterns where they may not exist.
  3. You have a little knowledge of a lot of subjects.
  4. You have assumed you know all there this is on a subject.
  5. You don’t believe you need constructive criticism.
  6. You only pay attention to those who confirm what you already believe.  
  7. You rely heavily on mental shortcuts such as ‘anchoring’ (influenced by the first bit of information you hear) or stereotyping. 
  8. You have strongly held beliefs that you don’t move away from.

What Causes Illusory Superiority?

As illusory superiority is a cognitive bias, I would imagine that it is associated with other psychological disorders such as narcissism. However, evidence suggests a physiological factor, specifically, how we process information in the brain.

Processing in the brain

Yamada et al. wanted to examine whether brain activity could shed light on why some people believe they are superior to others.

They looked at two areas of the brain:

The frontal cortex: Responsible for higher cognitive functions such as reasoning, emotions, planning, judgements, memory, sense of self, impulse control, social interaction, etc.

The striatum: Involved with pleasure and reward, motivation, and decision-making.

There is a connection between these two areas called the frontostriatal circuit. Researchers discovered that the strength of this connection directly relates to your view of yourself. 

People with a low connection think highly of themselves, whereas those with a higher connection think less and can suffer from depression. 

So the more people thought of themselves – the lower the connectivity. 

The study also looked at dopamine levels, and in particular, two types of dopamine receptors.

Dopamine levels

Dopamine is known as the ‘feel-good’ hormone and relates to rewards, reinforcement, and expectation of pleasure.  

There are two types of dopamine receptors in the brain:

  • D1 – stimulates cells to fire
  • D2 – inhibits cells from firing

The study found that people with fewer D2 receptors in the striatum thought highly of themselves. 

Those with high levels of D2 receptors thought less of themselves. 

There was also a link between lower connectivity in the frontostriatal circuit and decreased D2 receptor activity. 

The study concluded that higher levels of dopamine lead to a decrease in connectivity in the frontostriatal circuit. 

The question remains if illusory superiority originates from brain processing, is there anything we can do to minimise its effects?

What Can You Do about It?

  • Accept there are some things you cannot know (unknown unknowns).
  • There’s nothing wrong with being average.
  • No one person can be an expert in everything.
  • Get different points of view.
  • Continue learning and expanding your knowledge. 

Final Thoughts

Everyone likes to think they are better than the average person, but illusory superiority can have real-world consequences. For example, when leaders are convinced of their own superiority, yet blind to their ignorance, the results can be catastrophic. 


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the power of misfits

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. kellly

    Participation awards and hubris

  2. Terry B.

    ‘Everyone likes to think they are better than the average person’.
    Everyone, really?

    Good article, but that was untrue and uncalled for.

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