When psychologists ask people to compare their competence with that of their colleagues, an interesting pattern emerges. If individuals have a realistic perspective of their abilities, their self-assessments should generally fall around the middle. However, psychologists have consistently found that people’s self-assessments are inflated. Both top performers and underachievers tend to think they are better than they actually are.
This phenomenon is known as a positive illusion, a cognitive bias that leads individuals to believe they are more competent, fortunate, and blessed than they truly are. Many people find positive illusions intuitive and reasonable, with some scholars arguing that these illusions are crucial for our species’ survival. They posit that in order to succeed in life and leave a lasting legacy, optimism, hard work, and a sense of self-importance are necessary.
However, not everyone experiences positive illusions. Some individuals have a more realistic self-assessment, which can make them feel inadequate when comparing themselves to others who possess highly positive self-assessments. These comparisons may contribute to imposter syndrome, where individuals doubt their own accomplishments and feel undeserving of their success. In other words, imposter syndrome may be the negative consequence of society’s emphasis on positive self-perceptions.
It’s important to note that the available evidence supporting these claims is primarily based on Western societies. If positive illusions were truly fundamental to our species, we would expect them to be universal. However, my research and the work of other teams suggest otherwise.
In the early 1990s, my colleagues and I initiated the “Culture and the Self” project to explore how the concept of self varies across cultures. We discovered no substantial evidence for the better-than-average effect or other positive illusions in East Asia. For instance, in Japan, when university students were asked to estimate the proportion of their peers who were better than them in various traits and abilities, the average estimate was around 50 percent.
In our latest area of research, cultural neuroscience, we have found that certain communities lack the neural pathways that support positive illusions. Thus, a pattern previously considered universal by psychologists is actually a product of culture.
To transcend the limitations of this WEIRD cultural perspective (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic), my colleagues and I directly compared responses from Westerners and East Asians regarding self-related questions. In a study published last year in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, we asked American and Taiwanese participants to rate how they would feel when faced with success or failure. Americans reported feeling better about success than feeling bad about failure. In contrast, Taiwanese participants did not exhibit this positive illusion. If anything, they reported feeling worse about failure than feeling good about success. This response from Taiwanese participants may reflect another psychological tendency known as the negativity bias, where negative events have a stronger emotional impact than positive ones.
To delve deeper into this research, we monitored participants’ brain waves as they made these judgments. Specifically, we examined the magnitude of the “alpha wave,” a pattern of activity that occurs when a person’s mind wanders and engages in internally directed thoughts. We observed the alpha effect in Americans when they thought about themselves shortly after learning about something positive happening to them. This early attention predicted the extent of their positive illusions. However, Taiwanese participants did not exhibit this pattern when contemplating success or failure, nor did they demonstrate evidence of positive illusions, as mentioned earlier.
Modesty is highly valued in East Asian cultures. Therefore, some Western psychologists have suggested that the absence of positive illusions among East Asians is due to their tendency to conceal their true feelings in order to avoid appearing self-focused. However, our data show that this explanation is inaccurate. We found no additional brain activity associated with deliberate concealment of true feelings among Taiwanese participants in our study.
The vast majority of psychological research comes from WEIRD societies, which are
Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. Most scientists in the field of psychology, as well as other academic disciplines, hail from a WEIRD cultural background. As a result, the commonly held belief that positive illusions are a universal human trait is based on heavily skewed research.
In conclusion, when individuals assess their own abilities compared to their colleagues, they tend to overestimate their competence, displaying a positive illusion. This cognitive bias makes people feel more competent, fortunate, and better than they truly are. Positive illusions are often considered beneficial and crucial for survival, as they promote optimism, hard work, and the pursuit of success.
However, research indicates that positive illusions are not universally present across all cultures. Studies conducted in East Asia, such as in Japan and Taiwan, have shown a lack of evidence for positive illusions and better-than-average effects. Instead, individuals in these cultures tend to have a more realistic self-assessment, and modesty is highly valued.
Cultural neuroscience research further supports these findings, suggesting that positive illusions are influenced by cultural factors. Brainwave measurements have shown differences between Westerners and East Asians when evaluating success and failure. Westerners exhibit early attention and positive illusions when contemplating personal success, while East Asians do not show the same patterns and may even experience a negativity bias, where negative events have a stronger emotional impact.
It is important to recognize that the prevailing understanding of positive illusions as a universal human characteristic is limited by the dominance of WEIRD cultural perspectives in research. By broadening our focus and considering diverse cultural backgrounds, we gain a more comprehensive understanding of the variations in self-perception across different societies.