Expert Commentary

Economic inequality is linked to biased self-perception

2011 report in Psychological Science on individual self-enhancement bias and societal levels of income inequality.


The tendency for individuals to overestimate their own merits has long vexed psychologists, philosophers, employers, co-workers and spouses. Formally known as self-enhancement bias, it’s nearly universal but varies significantly from country to country. What societal factors might promote its prevalence?

A 2011 report published in Psychological Science, “Economic Inequality Is Linked to Biased Self-Perception,” surveyed 1,553 participants from 15 countries — primarily from young, university-based populations — to measure the correlation between self-enhancement bias and levels of national income inequality. The survey asked each participant to rate the value of 80 personality traits and then rate himself or herself with respect to each trait. Participants’ ages ranged between 15 and 27, with approximately twice as many females as males.

Key study findings include:

  • While self-enhancement effects were found in every country, a higher level of national income inequality was linked to an increase in its residents overestimating their skill levels. “People see themselves as superior to others to a greater extent in societies with a higher level of income inequality.”
  • Higher levels of self-enhancement bias were found in South Africa, Peru and Venezuela; lower levels were found in Japan, Germany and Belgium. The United States ranked in the middle, with approximately one in four participants demonstrating self-enhancement bias.
  • Participants typically scored themselves higher on the top 20 skills rated overall as most desirable by in their country, with the notable exception of participants from Japan.
  • The age and gender of participants influenced self-assessments, as did a society’s level of individualism and an individual’s reactions to political power. However, these factors influenced self-enhancement bias less than a country’s level of income inequality did.

The authors suggest that “individualism and economic inequality may work in concert to foster a perception of competition that results in cultural differences in levels of self-enhancement. Likewise, both … may undermine the norm of modesty.”

Tags: cognition, youth, inequality

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