Survey Finds Most Americans Think That They Have Above Average Intelligence

Don't scoff: you're not invulnerable to self-delusion. PR Image Factory/Shutterstock

Robin Andrews 31 Jul 2018, 14:55

A new US-based nationally representative survey has found that 65 percent of respondents (70 percent in men, 60 percent in women) agree with this rather telling statement: “I am more intelligent than the average person.” Hopefully this doesn’t require a rudimentary lesson in statistics to explain why this simply isn’t possible.

Now, this is amusing, but let’s not all pile in on the American public. While this PLOS ONE systematic study is certainly noteworthy, it’s not for the finding that many people overestimate their intellectual capabilities.

Instead, it’s important because similar research conducted in the US half a century earlier found much the same thing. Although the researchers caution about generalizing their findings, it’s a good bet the same pattern can be found in other countries around the world too.

Reams of psychological research notes that we are all fairly prone to overestimating our capabilities, with some people more prone than others. One finding in particular, one that crops up in this latest study, stands out: the least intelligent tend to be the most overconfident.

This doesn’t mean that confidence is necessarily associated with low intelligence, however, as university graduates often (more accurately) describe themselves as more learned. What it does potentially hint at, however, is that the Dunning-Kruger Effect (DKE) is alive and well in the general population.

This effect, described by social psychologists Justin Kruger and David Dunning in 1999, is all about so-called meta-ignorance: an unawareness of how ignorant an individual, pondering on their own capabilities, thinks they are.

This not only means that those suffering from a more acute version of DKE are not only terrible at something they are certain that they are competent at, but that they are blinded to the mere fact that they are terrible. This can have dangerous effects: the most confident anti-vaxxers, for example, tend to be those with the least amount of knowledge on the subject.

People tend to rate themselves more highly in a wide range of subjects, though, from driving to morality to videogames and cooking. Normally, those who are the least competent rate themselves very highly.

This study’s findings certainly has overtones of the DKE. Using both a large telephone survey and a smaller online survey, the team found that 20 percent said that they “strongly agreed” with the aforementioned statement; 45 percent said they “mostly agree”.

Younger Americans were more likely to agree with the statement than older Americans. Ethnicity made no significant difference.

The team, composed of researchers from the Geisinger Health System and the University of Illinois, point out that their results are open to some degree of interpretation. “Our results do not explain why 65% of Americans agree that they are more intelligent than average,” they stress.

They do, however, put forward several hypotheses, including the notion that “average person” is possibly determined by several means, depending on who they encounter regularly or what they perceive the general public to be like based on the media’s portrayal.

It’s also possible that the people’s definitions of intelligence are different from person to person. That’s fair enough; as we explain here, IQ is just one, fairly flawed measure of cognitive abilities. With that in mind, one could see how a majority of respondents correctly assume that they are smarter in one particular aspect compared to the general population.

Despite these uncertainties and the limitations of the study, the authors end on a more definitive note: “Despite these limitations, we conclude that Americans’ self-flattering beliefs about intelligence are alive and well several decades after their discovery was first reported.”

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