May 2, 2010

It seems we’re all more human than average

March 14 , 2010
Special to World Science  
For many, it’s al­most a tru­ism that most peo­ple think they’re “bet­ter” than av­er­age, and a good deal of past re­search sup­ports that com­mon ob­serva­t­ion.

But an emerg­ing body of re­search adds a new twist. The find­ings sug­gest that most peo­ple al­so think they’re more “hu­man” than av­er­age—possessed, they feel, of great­er emo­tion­al depth and gen­er­al hu­man­ness.

A re­port in the March 6 on­line is­sue of the Brit­ish Jour­nal of So­cial Psy­chol­o­gy, pub­lished by the Brit­ish Psy­cho­log­i­cal So­ci­e­ty, of­fers what its au­thors call “pre­lim­i­nary ev­i­dence” that this phe­nom­e­non is “truly uni­ver­sal,” char­ac­ter­is­tic of eve­ry cul­ture.

The stu­dy, by Steve Lough­nan of the Uni­vers­ity of Mel­bourne, Aus­tral­ia, and col­leagues in four oth­er coun­tries, re­views the ev­i­dence and ex­am­ines pos­si­ble rea­sons for the ef­fect.

“It ap­pears that across the world peo­ple may not only think ‘I am bet­ter than av­er­age’, but fur­ther ‘I am more hu­man,’” the group wrote. “Peo­ple see them­selves as embod­ying hu­man na­ture more than oth­ers,” in par­tic­u­lar the traits of “pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive emo­tion­al­ity, vi­vacity, and live­li­ness.”

In­ter­est­ing­ly, they added, peo­ple are less apt to rate them­selves as ex­cep­tion­al on the spe­cif­ic as­pects of hu­man na­ture they be­lieve make hu­mans “u­nique,” those that dis­tin­guish us from an­i­mals. Such char­ac­ter­is­tics don’t nec­es­sarily co­in­cide with “co­re” at­tributes of hu­man­ity, the re­search­ers not­ed: for in­stance, cu­ri­os­ity may be seen as cen­tral to be­ing hu­man, but is­n’t un­ique to hu­mans. Con­verse­ly, po­lite­ness may be con­sid­ered as not a co­re hu­man trait, though it does sep­a­rate us from an­i­mals.

The ev­i­dence for the “more hu­man” ef­fect has been emerg­ing for sev­er­al years, but only in the new re­port did the au­thors pre­s­ent a cross-cultural stu­dy, sur­vey­ing 480 peo­ple in six coun­tries: Aus­tral­ia, Ger­ma­ny, Is­ra­el, Ja­pan, Sin­ga­pore, and the Un­ited States. Par­ti­ci­pants were asked to fill out ques­tion­naires with ques­tions about var­i­ous traits in them­selves and in the av­er­age per­son.

“The more a trait was con­sid­ered de­sir­a­ble, part of hu­man na­ture, and un­iquely hu­man the more it was at­trib­ut­ed to the self relative to oth­ers,” the re­port’s au­thors wrote, with these three ef­fects list­ed in or­der of de­creas­ing strength. “Self-enhancement and self-hu­manizing there­fore ap­pear to be cross-culturally ro­bust,” they added. “The self-enhancement ef­fect was stronger than the self-hu­manizing ef­fect in four na­tions, but self-hu­manizing was stronger in Ger­ma­ny and Ja­pan.”

Although somewhat weaker than the “I’m-better-than-aver­age” effect, the “I’m-more-hu­man” ef­fect appeared more cross-cult­urally con­sis­tent, Lough­nan and col­leagues said. Indeed, although the better-than-average effect is supported in a variety of stu­dies, there has been debate as to whether it’s truly uni­ver­sal, with some re­search­ers attribut­ing the effect more part­i­cularly to cer­tain West­ern cul­tures.

There is no agreed explanation as to why peo­ple might tend to see them­selves as more hu­man than av­er­age. Lough­nan and col­leagues cit­ed two pos­si­ble rea­sons, which fur­ther re­search might in­ves­t­i­gate. One “is that self-hu­manizing re­flects an at­tempt to es­tab­lish or main­tain a feel­ing of con­nect­ed­ness with the hu­man col­lec­tive,” they wrote.

“Al­ter­na­tively, self hu­manizing may re­sult from peo­ple hav­ing more di­rect ac­cess to their own in­ter­nal pro­cesses than those of oth­ers. Great­er fa­mil­iar­ity with our in­ter­nal world may re­sult in view­ing the self as deeper, more com­plex, and more hu­man… self-hu­manizing may largely re­sult from bas­ic lim­ita­t­ions in our knowl­edge of oth­er minds.”

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