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Study: Even prisoners think they’re nicer than most people

Jan. 14, 2014
Courtesy of the Uni­vers­ity of South­amp­ton
and World Science staff

Just about eve­ry­one thinks they’re bet­ter than av­er­age—and that’s true for con­victed crim­i­nals as well, a study has found. Re­search­ers found pris­on­ers con­sid­er them­selves more mor­al, kind and trust­wor­thy than non-pris­on­ers in their com­mun­ity.

“If the pris­on­ers self-en­hanced by con­sid­ering them­selves su­pe­ri­or to fel­low in­mates or com­mun­ity mem­bers on ‘ma­cho’ traits, such as tough­ness, I would not be sur­prised,” said Con­s­tant­ine Se­di­ki­des of the Uni­vers­ity of South­amp­ton, U.K., who led the work.

“How­ever, they self-en­hanced on pro-social trait­s”—such as kind­ness, mor­al­ity, self-con­trol, and gen­eros­ity, he said. The study found that pris­on­ers did­n’t rate them­selves as more law abid­ing than non-pris­on­ers, but they did rate them­selves as equal. 

The stu­dy looked at the “bet­ter than av­er­age ef­fec­t,” ac­cord­ing to which peo­ple con­sist­ently eval­u­ate them­selves more fa­vorably than the av­er­age peer on most traits. “These find­ings are some of the most com­pel­ling demon­stra­t­ions of self-en­hancement,” said Se­di­ki­des. The pris­on­ers “ig­nored, to a large de­gree, real­ity.”

Al­though some pris­on­ers are surely in­no­cent, as a whole, “it is highly likely that in­car­cer­at­ed peo­ple ‘cheat’ their fel­low com­mun­ity mem­bers more than the non-in­car­cer­at­ed do,” he said. 

In the stu­dy, 79 in­mates from a pris­on in south Eng­land filled out a ques­tion­naire, which asked them to rate them­selves in com­par­i­son to the av­er­age pris­oner and the av­er­age mem­ber of the com­mun­ity on nine traits. These were: mor­al, kind to oth­ers, trust­wor­thy, hon­es­ty, de­pend­a­ble, com­pas­sion­ate, gen­er­ous, self-con­trolled, and law abid­ing.

Par­ti­ci­pants rat­ed them­selves as su­pe­ri­or to the av­er­age pris­oner on all traits, the study found, and to the av­er­age com­mun­ity mem­ber on all traits ex­cept law-abingness. There, they con­sid­ered them­selves equal.

“The re­sults show­case how po­tent the self-en­hancement mo­tive is. It is very im­por­tant for peo­ple to con­sid­er them­selves good, val­ued, and es­teemed no mat­ter what ob­jec­tive cir­cum­stances might be. For an­y­one who doubts this, ask them if they think that their chil­dren are per­fectly av­er­age,” Se­di­ki­des said.

He added that the ef­fect could have an im­pact on pris­oners’ com­mon pre­dic­tion that they are less likely to com­mit fu­ture crimes, when of­fi­cial da­ta in­di­cate that about half of them re-offend with­in a year of re­lease.

“Prison-based in­ter­ven­tions, which rely on ef­forts to en­hance think­ing skills, al­ready aim to chal­lenge mis­con­cep­tions that of­fend­ers may have about their of­fence and the im­pact their be­hav­ior has had on so­ci­e­ty. How­ev­er, pris­on­ers al­so need to be en­cour­aged to ex­plore the real­ity of life af­ter re­lease from pris­on while al­so be­ing of­fered sup­port to over­come the in­di­vid­ual and so­ci­e­tal bar­ri­ers that can pre­vent a suc­cess­ful rein­tegra­t­ion,” he said.

The findings are published in the British Journal of Social Psychology.


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Just about everyone thinks they’re better than average—and that’s true for convicted criminals as well, a study has found. Researchers found the prisoners consider themselves more moral, kind and trustworthy than non-prisoners in their community. “If the prisoners self-enhanced by considering themselves superior to fellow inmates or community members on ‘macho’ traits, such as toughness, I would not be surprised,” said Constantine Sedikides of the University of Southampton, U.K., who led the work. “However, they self-enhanced on pro-social traits”—such as kindness, morality, self-control, and generosity, he said. The study found that prisoners didn’t rate themselves as more law abiding than non-prisoners, but they did rate themselves as equal. The study, published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, looked at the “better than average effect,” according to which people consistently evaluate themselves more favourably than the average peer on most traits. “These findings are some of the most compelling demonstrations of self-enhancement,” said Sedikides. The prisoners “ignored, to a large degree, reality.” Although some prisoners are surely innocent, as a whole, “it is highly likely that incarcerated people ‘cheat’ their fellow community members more than the non-incarcerated do,” he said. In the study, 79 inmates from a prison in south England filled out a questionnaire, which asked them to rate themselves in comparison to the average prisoner and the average member of the community on nine traits. These were: moral, kind to others, trustworthy, honesty, dependable, compassionate, generous, self-controlled, and law abiding. Participants rated themselves as superior to the average prisoner on all traits, the study found, and to the average community member on all traits except law-abingness. There, they considered themselves equal. “The results showcase how potent the self-enhancement motive is. It is very important for people to consider themselves good, valued, and esteemed no matter what objective circumstances might be. For anyone who doubts this, ask them if they think that their children are perfectly average,” Sedikides said. He added that the effect could have an impact on a prisoner’s common prediction that they are less likely to commit future crimes, when official data indicate that about half of them re-offend within a year of release from prison. “Prison-based interventions, which rely on efforts to enhance thinking skills, already aim to challenge misconceptions that offenders may have about their offence and the impact their behaviour has had on society. However, prisoners also need to be encouraged to explore the reality of life after release from prison while also being offered support to overcome the individual and societal barriers that can prevent a successful reintegration,” he said.