People Think They’re Morally Superior and Why That’s a Bad Thing
We can be pretty irrational at times.
Psychology says that this irrationality will manifest itself when we think about our own characteristics and traits. For instance, we think we’re better drivers, that we’re more attractive, and generally warmer than the average person.
But it goes further than that. We also think we’re morally superior to our fellow human beings.
The Illusion of Moral Superiority
Think you’re more honest than the average Joe? Maybe more fair or principled?
Welcome to the club. Everyone thinks they are.
Two researchers published a study in Social Psychology and Personality Science that asked people to rate 30 different traits from different categories. Individuals rated traits on how well it described them personally, as well as the average person.
While we do have a tendency to rate ourselves higher than average on desirable traits, the researchers found that a group of traits stood out:
Virtually all individuals irrationally inflated their moral qualities.
What’s more was that researchers said that this irrationality, “was greater than that observed in other domains of self-enhancement.”
Are We Overconfident About Our Moral Superiority?
We all believe in being fair and being just. We develop these concepts early on in our childhood.
The study from London shows just how deep seated our idea of morality is. And how strong we want to believe that we’re good, moral individuals.
But could this cause some problems?
It just might. Especially when paired with another common trait. We also think we’re less biased than other people.
This trait was highlighted in a study that conducted two different experiments. This is what the researchers found:
In both studies, people generally believed that they were less biased than others. Moreover, people responded defensively to feedback indicating they were biased.
When people were called out on their unconscious biases (which we all have), they were more defensive and rejected the results more strongly.
Why the Illusion of Moral Superiority is Bad
Thinking that we’re morally superior could impede, or maybe even reverse, progress on important issues.
There’s a lot of contentious issues in politics, religion, and science. These issues touch on a lot of topics that touch on moral principles. Not what’s “legal”, but what’s fair, just, and right.
If everything believes they’re in the moral right, it could stop opposing groups from finding a working solution to big problems. And the researchers agree:
When opposing sides are convinced of their own righteousness, escalation of violence is more probable, and the odds of resolution are ominously low.
Humans can be very tribal. We have a natural ability to identify with groups. Social, political, economical, or ideological. Now throw in the fact that we also don’t think we’re as biased as others.
It could be a recipe for defensiveness, name calling, and closed-mindedness when different ideas and perspectives collide.
Combating the Bias
Being aware that we all have these tendencies or biases may be the first step. It can make us look more carefully at our own behavior and thought processes.
But another characteristic that research says may help is intellectual humility. It can make us more open minded and possibly deal more effectively with others.
People come from many different backgrounds. They’ll have different perspectives and ideas on issues. While big problems aren’t easy to solve, that doesn’t mean we can’t be reasonable to one another.
But the biggest mistake we could be making, before any words are even spoken, is believing that we’re morally righteous.