People, on average, believe that they are above average, and for the humbler beings among us maybe just a little bit, but superior than most nonetheless. This is of course statistically impossible, because, well - maths! We all know people who tend to overrate themselves in a particular skill-set, overestimate the likelihood that they will do what is best for the situation and achieve better results, be overconfident in beating deadlines, and reach decisions with audacity.
A good example is in the workplace, where employees tend to overestimate their skill, promising results and biting off more than they could chew - making it difficult to complete big projects. Managers and other higher-ups tend to skew upwards their abilities, display overconfidence in their judgments, particularly when approaching fresh markets or starting new projects – hurting rather than helping their company.
But this is especially true when it comes to how we perceive how we look. Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago and Erin Whitchurch of the University of Virginia conducted a series studies that showed we see ourselves as better looking than we actually are. In their study, “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Enhancement in Self-Recognition,” participants were photographed, and using computerized wizardry produced three sets of pictures – the original photos, one that made them look more attractive, and one that made them look less attractive. They were then presented with these sets of images and were asked to identify the unmodified picture. They tended to select the attractively enhanced one.
The same research also showed that this bias for themselves does not apply when evaluating other people. The same procedure was applied to a picture of a stranger, whom the participant met before in an unrelated study. But in this situation, the participants tended to select the original and unmodified picture of the stranger.
People tend to say that an attractively enhanced picture is their own, but Epley and Whitchurch wanted to be sure that people truly believe what they say. People recognize objects more quickly when those objects match their mental representations. Therefore, if people truly believe that an attractively enhanced picture is their own, they should recognize that picture more quickly, which is exactly what the researchers found.
Inflated perceptions of our physical appearance is a manifestation of a general phenomenon psychologists call “self-enhancement.” We are basically deceiving ourselves. And why do we deceive ourselves? William von Hippel of the University of Queensland and Robert Trivers of Rutgers University argue that “self-deception evolved to facilitate interpersonal deception by allowing people to avoid the cues to conscious deception that might reveal deceptive intent. Self-deception has two additional advantages: It eliminates the costly cognitive load that is typically associated with deceiving, and it can minimize retribution if the deception is discovered. Beyond its role in specific acts of deception, self-deceptive self-enhancement also allows people to display more confidence than is warranted, which has a host of social advantages.”
So we deceive ourselves so we can better deceive others. We see ourselves as more attractive than we really are, thus boosting our confidence, which in turn raises our influence within a freely interacting group. Because according to Paul Zarnoth and Janet A. Sniezek of the University of Illinois the influence of a particular faction within a group was greater if its members were more confident. Which in effect increases our stature to be chosen as the better leaders and romantic partners. Which is not a bad reason if you want to get ahead in the world.