Self-Enhancement: Showing Off Our Positive Traits

06 October, 2020
As human beings, we feel the need to show off our positive traits, skills, and abilities. This is a normal adaptive behavior that relies on different cognitive biases. It's important to be able to recognize these biases, especially in ourselves. In this article, we'll take a look at these biases in more detail.

Self-enhancement is one of the three self-evaluation motivations. This motive allows us to maintain a positive self-concept. In addition to responding to an innate need to retain a positive image of ourselves, we also feel the urge to show this image to others. Sometimes, we do it consciously and explicitly. In many cases, however, we do it without even being aware of it.

If a person’s self-image has been damaged or injured in some way, they may be motivated to repair it. One’s natural response is self-enhancement, which serves as a way to compensate or play down our flaws.

In any case, whether our self-image has been damaged or not, we all feel the need to show off our positive traits, skills, and abilities. This need isn’t pathological, nor does it impair our ability to adapt to our environment – so long, that is, as it doesn’t go too far, become a problem, or hide some major underlying issue. Some examples are often found in work or academic relationships, where excessive self-enhancement levels can be a sign of low self-esteem.

The cognitive bias of self-enhancement

People have a tendency to give causal explanations for their successes and failures. As we get older, we don’t tend to stop and ask, “Why?” as often as we did when we were younger. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the origins, causes, or reasons behind events no longer interest us. Instead, it’s common for us to attribute our successes to our personal qualities (self-enhancing attributes).

In many cases, except in those where the person is more prone to the opposite extreme, it’s also common for us to believe that the explanations for our failures lie in external causes out of our control, such as bad luck or interference from others. This is what’s known as self-protective attribution. In truth, self-enhancement relies on different cognitive biases. It’s important to be able to recognize these biases, both in others and in ourselves. We’ll take a look at these biases in more detail later on. But first, we have a short test for you.

Understanding self-enhancement.

Self-enhancement cognitive bias test

In comparison to others, this situation is:

 

1 Failing an exam. More likely to happen to others than to me.

As likely to happen to others as to me.

More likely to happen to me than to others.

1

2

3

2 Attempting to learn a new skill (eg. cooking, a sport, or a musical instrument). More likely to happen to others than to me.

As likely to happen to others as to me.

More likely to happen to me than to others.

1

2

3

3 Forgetting to attend an important appointment More likely to happen to others than to me.

As likely to happen to others as to me.

More likely to happen to me than to others.

1

2

3

4 Losing contact with a good friend you’ve been close to for years. More likely to happen to others than to me.

As likely to happen to others as to me.

More likely to happen to me than to others.

1

2

3

5 Making a joke in front of a large group (more than five people) and making everyone laugh. More likely to happen to others than to me.

As likely to happen to others as to me.

More likely to happen to me than to others.

1

2

3

6 Someone complaining about your behavior. More likely to happen to others than to me.

As likely to happen to others as to me.

More likely to happen to me than to others.

1

2

3

7 Meeting someone new and maintaining a close friendship with them for years. More likely to happen to others than to me.

As likely to happen to others as to me.

More likely to happen to me than to others.

1

2

3

8 Feeling a sense of great euphoria upon achieving success or reaching a particular goal. More likely to happen to others than to me.

As likely to happen to others as to me.

More likely to happen to me than to others.

1

2

3

Marking key

All 1s = -1                 All 2s = 0                All 3s = 1

To obtain your average score for negative and positive events, you’ll need to add up the totals separately. Start by adding up your scores for all the negative scenarios (1, 3, 4, 6) and dividing the total by four. Then, add up your score for the positive scenarios (2, 5, 7, 8) and divide that by four as well.

For negative events. If the mean is greater than zero, it indicates the existence of pessimistic biases. If the mean is less than zero, it indicates the presence of optimistic biases.

For positive events. If the mean is greater than zero, it indicates the existence of optimistic biases, and if the mean is less than zero, it indicates the existence of pessimistic biases.

N.B. Your score in this test has no diagnostic value. Instead, it only has an expository value. We included it in this article to help you better understand some of the concepts discussed.

The positive perception of the self

A positive perception of the self fulfills an adaptive function, and the level of bias can vary from person to person. Biases are necessary sometimes in order to protect the self and may, indirectly, help keep anxiety at bay. As such, it can be interesting to explore how many of these biases you can recognize in yourself, and to what extent they exist. Learning about these self-perception biases, and trying to identify them in yourself and in others, can help you to manage stress and can even be fun.

A man gazing at the horizon.

People often say that psychologists have come up with more labels than there are phenomena to put them to. Jokes aside, the truth is that, on many occasions, the dynamics we’ve described go completely unnoticed, until we see them written down in black and white. And that’s exactly the point.

The most common self-enhancement biases include:

  • False singularity. The systematic tendency to believe that our skills and abilities are very different from those of any other mortal.
  • False consensus. The tendency to overestimate the degree to which the majority of people agree with what we think or believe. How many times have we said something along the lines of, “Let’s ask someone who knows what they’re talking about” or “Let’s ask someone unbiased” and been surprised by the answer?
  • The primus inter pares effect. This curious phenomenon occurs a lot more often than you might think. It refers to the tendency to believe that we’re superior to or better than people who are similar or equal to us. For example, most drivers believe they’re better drivers than others or commit fewer offenses than average.
  • Pluralistic ignorance. A dynamic that makes us repress or stop expressing an opinion or emotion because we feel that the majority of people don’t share our views. This bias is derived from the fact that we overestimate our ability to guess what others are thinking.
  • The illusion of invulnerability. This occurs when we underestimate the probability of something bad happening to us.

The search for the trait that sets us apart from the rest

Self-esteem is the attitude and emotion a person feels towards themselves. It has a huge influence on how you treat yourself and what you think of yourself generally. This emotional state which derives from your self-concept. In this sense, seeing ourselves as unique usually makes us feel good. In many aspects of life, we often place more value on items and qualities that are difficult to find and stand out from the rest. Despite this tendency, the traits that make us different aren’t always all that relevant.

As a result, when people find that the traits they see most in themselves, the aspects of their personality that form the backbone of their self-definition, are actually quite common in others, it usually has a negative impact on their self-esteem.