Better Than Average – Are Prisoners Really So Different?

In a study recently published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, University of Southampton researchers found that prisoners rated themselves equal to or better than non-incarcerated community members with respect to honesty, morality, self-control, and other attributes. These findings add to the substantial base of literature supporting the “better-than-average effect” (BTAE).

The BTAE refers to our tendency to consider ourselves better than our neighbors and colleagues, especially when it comes to more subjective traits like trustworthiness or compassion. Constantine Sedikides, Professor of Social and Personality Psychology and Director of the Centre for Research on Self and Identity at the University of Southampton, noted that:

“Virtually by definition, people who are incarcerated have shown a lack of respect for their peers and have violated a legal pact: to adhere to the laws of the community. Although non-incarcerated people do this also, it is highly likely that incarcerated people “cheat” their fellow community members more than the non-incarcerated do. To evaluate themselves more favourably than the non-incarcerated on virtually every social characteristic stretches reality to the breaking point.”

Based on decades of research on the BTAE in the population living outside the prison walls, we should be more surprised if the prisoners did not overinflate their own virtue relative to their peers. After all, our inclination to focus on the speck in our brother’s eye while a log obstructs our own eye was chronicled back in the time of the Apostles (Luke 7:1-5). Even if you never step foot inside a prison, the BTAE is all around you.

Instances of the BTAE you are more likely to encounter in your daily routine can be found in the 94% of professors who believe that they are better-than-average teachers. The effect has also been demonstrated in overly confident online investors, who rated their investment knowledge and past performance as above average, even when their actual past performance was verifiably not above average. Investors with unrealistically inflated assessments of themselves traded higher volume relative to more rational investors. If you are on the road, you can be assured that most of the drivers around you think their driving skills are superior to yours and the abilities of other drivers on the road.

In addition to assessing their own virtues relative to the average person, in another study Brown asked participants to rate each of several qualities in terms of importance. Honesty received the highest importance rating, and also showed the greatest BTAE. The attribute “outgoing”, was rated the least important by participants, and showed the smallest BTAE. The BTAE tends to be most pronounced among the qualities people value the most.

Americans are even more likely to view themselves as better-than-average with respect to pretty much any virtue you ask them about, compared to Asian cultures. In the United States, where the majority of people rate their honesty as above average, tax payers are estimated to report about $300 billion less per year than what they should, and some estimates of employee theft and fraud exceed $600 billion. The asymmetry between belief and reality resulting from self enhancement is very much alive outside of the prisons.

In their study The Dishonesty of Honest People: A Theory of Self-Concept Maintenance, Mazar, Amir, and Ariely theorized that “people who think highly of themselves in terms of honesty make use of various mechanisms that allow them to engage in a limited amount of dishonesty while retaining positive views of themselves.”

They describe a “band of acceptable dishonesty,” where the pursuit of positive material gains from a dishonest act may be mitigated by the potential deleterious effect the act could have on the individual’s concept of self. Lest we grow cynical, it’s worth noting that the “band of acceptable dishonesty” was shortened considerably when the participants were reminded of the Ten Commandments prior to being given an opportunity to cheat on a test.

The Southampton study not only calls into question the prisoners’ objectivity, it adds to the substantive body of literature suggesting that the rest of us fall prey to the same biases. How can we counteract this tendency? While our views related to ourselves are prone to distortion, our perceptions of others are generally more accurate. Conversely, others’ perceptions can be of value to us. We can look to objective measures and peer assessments of our performance to probe the validity of our own opinions about ourselves. When it comes to more subjective traits such as honesty and responsibility, general mindfulness of our standards — the ones we hold other people to — has a demonstrated countervailing effect on our inclination to stray from those standards.


Brown, J. (2012). Understanding the Better Than Average Effect: Motives (Still) Matter. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38: 209. doi:10.1177/0146167211432763

Glaser, M. and Weber, M. (2007). Overconfidence and Trading Volume. Geneva Risk Insurance Review, 32:1-36 doi: 10.1007/s10713-007-0003-3

Lee, J. (2012) Trait Desirability and Cultural Difference in the Better Than Average Effect. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 15 261-272 doi: 10.1111/j.1467-839X.2012.01381.x

Mazar, N., Amir, O., and Ariely, D. (2008). The Dishonesty of Honest People: A Theory of Self-Concept Maintenance. Journal of Marketing Research, 45 633-644. Retrieved from EBSCOhost on January 15, 2014.

Sedikides C, Meek R, Alicke MD, & Taylor S (2013). Behind bars but above the bar: Prisoners consider themselves more prosocial than non-prisoners. The British journal of social psychology / the British Psychological Society PMID: 24359153

Zell, E. and Alicke, M. (2011). Age and the Better-Than-Average Effect. Journal of Applied Psychology, 41(5) 1175-1188. doi: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2011.00752.x

Image via Bruno Passigatti / Shutterstock.

Lindsay Myers, MBA, MPH

Lindsay E. Myers, MBA, MPH, is a national healthcare consultant. Ms. Myers has served as Chief Financial Officer, Director, and Consultant to hospitals, physician practices, hospices, social services agencies, and public health clinics. She lives in Sarasota, Florida.
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