Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Findings

prison-bars-shutterstock

(Photo: BortN66/Shutterstock)

Sure, I’m Behind Bars, But I’m Still Morally Superior to You

• January 07, 2014 • 2:00 AM

(Photo: BortN66/Shutterstock)

The belief we’re better than the average person holds true even for convicts.

As Garrison Keillor fans are well aware, all of the children in Lake Wobegon are above average. But newly published research suggests the presumption of exceptionality is hardly confined to rural Minnesota.

In fact, it is so widespread, it even applies to a most unexpected population: prison inmates.

A survey of convicts serving time in an English prison found they rated themselves higher than the average person on a range of positive characteristics, including morality and kindness. A research team led by University of Southampton psychologist Constantine Sedikides reports the one exception was law-abidingness—“for which they viewed themselves as average.”

Apparently the authorities can take away your freedom, but not your inflated feelings of self-worth.

Maintaining a positive self-image seems to be a basic emotional need (at least for Westerners), and it doesn’t disappear when the cell door slams shut.

The study, published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, was based on a survey of 79 convicted felons serving time in a prison in the south of England. Each prisoner filled out a questionnaire in which they were asked to rate on a five-point scale how they compared to the “average prisoner” on a series of positive characteristics: moral, kind to others, trustworthy, honest, dependable, compassionate, generous, law-abiding, and self-controlled.

They then filled out a second survey, in which they rated how they compared to “the average member of the community” on all of the above characteristics.

The results suggest low self-esteem is not among the prisoners’ problems. Compared to their fellow inmates, “they rated themselves as more moral, kinder to others, more self-controlled, more law-abiding, more compassionate, more generous, more dependable, more trustworthy, and more honest.”

In addition, “Participants rated themselves as better than the average community member on all traits, with the exception of law-abidingness.” On that last point, the researchers report, “they rated themselves as equally law abiding” as the average person, “which may be the most surprising of all, given their incarcerated status.”

This provides evidence of the robust—and groundless—nature of the “better-than-average effect.”

“There is usually no unequivocal way to assess whether or not people are better than average on a particular trait,” the researchers note. In this case, however, it seems self-evident that your average convict isn’t more honest or trustworthy than the typical man in the street, in spite of his insistence to the contrary.

This self-deception does have its upside, according to Sedikides and his colleagues. “Unrealistically favorable self-views can instill the confidence needed to persevere at difficult tasks,” they note.

On the other hand, they add, people who “fail or refuse to recognize” where they fall short “will be unlikely to rectify their faults.”

“In the same way that people with low abilities fail to apprehend the criteria that are required for success,” the researchers conclude, “the prisoners in our study seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be law abiding.”

Either that, or they hold an extremely cynical view of human nature. Perhaps they’re convinced that everyone’s a crook, and they just happened to be caught—which was so unfair, since they’re actually more honest than most!

This clearly delusional attitude reflects, at least in part, what the researchers call “motivated self-enhancement.” Maintaining a positive self-image seems to be a basic emotional need (at least for Westerners), and it doesn’t disappear when the cell door slams shut.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.