"Long before it's in the papers"
June 04, 2013


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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It’s almost a truism that most people think they’re “better” than average, and abundant past research backs up 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,” distinguishing 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.” It’s not known why people may 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.”