Good food for good thought

Pretty much everybody thinks they’re better than average. But in some cultures, people are more self-aggrandizing than in others. Until now, national differences in “self-enhancement” have been chalked up to an East-West individualism-versus-collectivism divide. In the West, where people value independence, personal success, and uniqueness, psychologists have said, self-inflation is more rampant. In the East, where interdependence, harmony, and belonging are valued, modesty prevails.

Now an analysis of data gathered from 1,625 people in 15 culturally diverse countries finds a stronger predictor of self-enhancement: economic inequality.

“We don’t know the precise mechanism, but it seems unlikely that it is primarily an East-West difference,” says University of Kent research associate Steve Loughnan. “It’s got to do with how your society distributes its resources.” The study – whose 19 collaborators represent 16 universities around the globe – will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Loughnan says the study is important for “many domains of psychology.” Until recently psychologists have focused on individual factors affecting wellbeing, such as education or family. But this research shows that “macro-social” factors also matter. “We live inside societies that have certain political and economic realities. These affect how we think about the self and how happy we are.”

Economic policymakers should also take note. “We’re living through a time of considerable economic reform in Western countries,” he says. “The nature of that reform will have a big impact on people’s personal and social wellbeing.” Reform, then, “is not just about making the society richer, but how you distribute those riches.”

Economic Inequality Is Linked to Biased Self-Perception

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