5 Shocking Ways You Overestimate Yourself
Have you ever sat next to the smelly guy? Did you ever wonder why nobody tells him that he smells, or why he can't smell himself? Doesn't he notice people getting up and changing seats when he sits down? How can he live his whole life being unaware of a flaw that is readily apparent to a total stranger 10 seconds after they've met?
Well, here's the thing: According to science, we're all the smelly guy. Figuratively, that is.
We Are More Racist Than We Think
Here's something that doesn't make sense: On one hand, we know that racism is still a big deal (you can't argue with it -- studies show it still turns up in everything from jury decisions to hiring practices), but how many outright racists do you actually know? How many people at your office fling the blankets aside each morning and scream, "TODAY I SHALL OPPRESS A BLACK MAN!"?
Only a small one today, though. Maybe one day he'll aspire to insult Kobe Bryant's mother.
Probably not that many. So we have the seemingly impossible situation of a world with a lot of racism and not many racists (and no matter how anonymous you make the poll, you can never find significant numbers of people admitting to being racist). Science suggests it's because all of us are a little more racist than we think.
"I'm not racist; I totally love cosplay girls."
For instance, in one somewhat hilarious experiment, researchers just set up a bunch of conversations -- some between members of the same race, some between different races. Then, to liven things up, they had the conversations take place over a closed-circuit camera system and intentionally inserted awkward pauses into the conversations by adding a one-second delay. No, the participants didn't realize they were doing it.
When a white person was talking to a white person, the pauses were basically unnoticed. But in the interracial conversations, the awkward pauses caused the anxiety levels of the participants to go off the charts -- far more than in control conversations held face-to-face. No matter how nonracist and open-minded the participants thought they were, one second of awkward silence was all it took for a whole bunch of subconscious racial tensions to bubble up. "Goddamn it, I just can't connect with this person! He's different from me!"
"I can't really put my finger on why."
By the way, if you put us in the same room, we'll reflect that tension in our body language, regardless of our relationship to the other person. In another bizarre experiment, researchers showed a group some video clips of two people talking: one white guy and one guy who was obscured so the observers couldn't see what race he was. Test subjects could usually guess the race of the obscured guy just by watching the other one's body language.
The clips, by the way, were from TV shows where the characters were supposed to be equals and/or friendly with each other (that is, they weren't from cop shows where the white cop was arresting an obscured face wearing flamboyant pimp clothes). One of the shows that gave the "subconscious racist" response was Scrubs, for Christ's sake. These are real-life friends and colleagues playing the role of fake friends and colleagues. But put black and white together in the room, and on a subconscious level, things change.
Our funny on-screen bromance is just overcompensating for our acute racial tension!
Finally, and maybe strangest of all, is an experiment in which they gathered a random group of people -- not taken from a Klan rally or anything -- and made them watch an excruciating video of a guy's hand having a needle slooowly driven into the skin.
That involuntary wince you just did is happily a universal human response.
As you can imagine, the subjects literally felt the pain in their own hands ... as long as the hand on the screen was of the same race. The result was the same for the white and black participants -- they couldn't feel as much empathy for a member of another race.
And if you're about to say, "That's not racism! That's an involuntary response based on the fact that the hand being injured just didn't look like their own!" Hey, that's what the researchers thought, too, so they also included a purple hand. Subjects felt empathy toward it just fine. That's right -- the subjects couldn't muster empathy for a fellow human of another race but cringed at the thought of somebody hurting a fucking Night Elf.
We Think We're Nicer Than We Are
The whole racism thing, however, just leads into a larger point.
Imagine that tomorrow you run across a person in need -- say a co-worker loses everything he owns in a fire, and everybody is making donations to help him out. In your imagination, how much would you give?
Now cut that amount in half. That's how much you'd give if the situation actually presented itself.
Which is bad if you gave him your child to help clean up.
See, no matter how much we make self-deprecating jokes or talk about how we suck and play the role of the lovable loser, experiments show that deep down, we think we are nicer and more generous than we actually are. Psychologists have long known that people tend to think they are more altruistic than the world in general, but researchers weren't sure if that was because we overestimate how great we are or because we underestimate everyone else. Hint: It's the first one.
People are dicks except for you; you're an adorable little buttercup!
Which brings us to the hypothetical situation above. A study at Cornell found that over the course of two experiments, of the participants who said they would donate to a charity (a staggering 80 percent), only half actually did when given the chance. Those who did donate gave only half as much as they previously said they would.
But, strangely, the amount of money donated in reality was close to what the participants predicted others would contribute. In other words, we have a pretty accurate idea of how selfish the rest of the world is, but in our imaginations, we don't perceive ourselves as being members of "the world." We all picture ourselves as members of an "elite moral minority."
"All right, homeless man, take the money -- just don't touch me!"
It wasn't just with money, either. Another study involved predicting whether subjects would take on a complex task rather than an easy one when they knew somebody else would get stuck with the task they didn't take. Most people thought, "Of course I'll do the harder task! It's only fair," but when actually presented with the task, they were far more likely to pawn it off on the other person ... even if they were told that person was a 10-year-old girl. Buckle your ass down, little Suzy!
You'd better get on and solve that economic problem we're having!
We Have No Idea How Attractive We Are (or Rather, Aren't)
Forget for a moment the flamboyant, egomaniacal Snooki-type people who clearly are seeing a much more awesome version of themselves when they look in the mirror than actually exists. This isn't about them. No, science says that the odds are overwhelming that you think you're more attractive than you actually are. Experiments on this are downright freaky.
Not unlike Snooki.
For instance, some scientists took pictures of a group of experiment subjects. Then they altered them in various ways, creating 11 versions of each photo. Some had been drastically photoshopped to make the person more attractive, and some to make the person less attractive. One was left unchanged. The researchers showed the photos to the participants and said, "Which one is the unaltered one?" Now, these are their own faces we're talking about here. But time and time again, they were bad at finding the unaltered photo. Want to guess which ones they were likely to pick out as unaltered? The ones that had been fixed to make the subjects more attractive.
The camera might add 10 pounds, but apparently it also makes you look like a supermodel.
In other words, the person we see reflected in the mirror is not the reality of what we look like -- it's warped by our brain to make us hotter. This is one of the reasons people claim not to be photogenic or say they hate pictures of themselves. Yeah, right, it's the camera.
Meanwhile, another study found that 1 in 4 overweight people see themselves as being of normal weight. OK, we can kind of see that, since "overweight" is a medical term and maybe they're not even familiar with where the line is. But then you find out that a whopping 70 percent of obese people thought they were just a little bit overweight. Among the morbidly obese, 40 percent thought they needed to lose just a few pounds.
Just like this blazing inferno needs to lose just a few flames before it horribly suffocates everyone.
And then there's this massive 26,000 person study in which people were asked to rate their own attractiveness. Now, since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the researchers didn't just line up a bunch of people and say, "You think you're good-looking? Get the fuck out of my lab, Sasquatch!" No, they simply asked the people to rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 10, with 5 being an average-looking person. Virtually everyone rated themselves at least a 6 or 7 -- meaning everyone thinks they're "above average." Which is not only mathematically impossible but violates basic common sense about what "average" means.
Young people were the most deluded, with about 30 percent of men and women under age 30 claiming they were an 8 to a 10. Again, if that were true, we'd have to adjust the scale so the numbers meant something else -- you'd wind up in a whole Spinal Tap amp discussion.
So just remember this next time you're at Walmart or standing in line at McDonald's -- 3 out of every 10 of the people around you think they are at model levels of hot.
We Think Our Problems Are the Worst
We've all read interviews with celebrities, or maybe even friends' blogs, in which they go on and on about how great their lives are, and we wonder what horrible shit we must have done in a past life to be dealt the hand we've got now. Bills, relationships, family, jobs ... everything just sucks. Meanwhile, everyone else in the world is running around with their sex and money and interesting hobbies. Sure, those people might have some minor inconveniences from time to time, but not like you.
"My hands are so full of prostitute I can't put my winnings away."
Studies have found that our pain, our unhappiness, the things that bother us, etc., we perceive as much, much worse than anything that others go through. We also assume that our lives are worse and that we are unhappier than those around us.
Part of this self-pity is due to the fact that it's a social norm for everyone to project only the good things about their lives. As the author of the study pointed out, just look at people's Facebook photo albums -- it's all parties, vacations, the new puppy, the new girlfriend, the new TV, the gang laughing at a bar. Nobody posts photos of themselves straining on the toilet and screaming that their colon is full of burning rocks. And your photos are probably just as carefree as theirs.
This life-affirming event makes your internal existential horror much less visible.
The difference is that you know there's frustrating bullshit going on in between those snapshots and that, in a way, your photo album is a lie. But you assume that everyone else's galleries of awesome are perfectly accurate cross-sections of what are clearly charmed lives. It never occurs to us that we're all doing the same thing -- building a pretty fence around a yard full of dog turds.
"That dead horse was on MY side of the fence, Carl. I want it back."
And this also makes sense when you compare it with the study about generosity from earlier, where people basically painted themselves as heroes. If our suffering is worse than other people's, then damn it, we're downright heroic just for enduring it.
So, for instance, you know other people suffer from headaches, but that thing you have right now is a HEADACHE. Your brain has been replaced by a pulsating wad of twisted nails. And sure, maybe you mocked Steve for slowing down at work last week because of his headache, but that's only because there's no way his felt like this. Or else he'd have been reacting way more than he was. Why, this is a headache that would fucking kill a normal man! And yet, you soldier on!
You're a lazy bastard, Steve.
We Think We Have More Free Will Than Other People
At the very beginning of his crazy rant-filled downfall, Charlie Sheen went on the radio and gave this advice to fellow addict Lindsay Lohan: "Work on your impulse control. Just try to think things through a little bit before you do them."
"Also, remove the hat and beard, Lindsay. It makes you look like a madman."
Now, it's easy to pass that off as just the hilarious pot/kettle/black ravings of a crazy person, but look closer: You have two people engaging in the exact same behaviors. In Sheen's mind, Lohan lacks self-control, but he controls himself. He makes decisions about what he does (cocaine and hookers) while she just does things because of her addictions and personality flaws (cocaine and grand theft). When she participates in a drunken high-speed chase with a suspended license, it's just her impulses controlling her like a puppeteer. He, on the other hand, is simply exercising his God-given free will when he does a suitcase of cocaine with porn stars for 36 hours.
God is great!
Laugh if you want, but science says that bizarre double standard is at work in all of us.
Part of this is because when not presented with a temptation (drugs, alcohol, sex, even food), we drastically miscalculate how much of said temptation we can handle. According to a study at the Kellogg School of Management, people think they can handle a whole lot more temptation than they actually can -- and the more sure they are of their self-control, the more likely they are to be drinking that 12th beer or eating that fifth slice of pizza.
Again, if you see a friend do it, you shake your head at how pathetically out of control his appetites are. But because, from inside your own mind, you can see how easily you could not drink that beer if you chose not to, that beer is treated as the product of your cold, logical choice rather than your raging alcoholism.
Another experiment found another way to look at it. Basically, we identify everyone in our life by a type ("the drunk," "the genius," "the rich kid") but don't identify ourselves as a type. The guy on the bus who flew into a rage did it because he's an angry asshole. When you flew into a rage the next day, it was because of a series of complex rational choices.
You wanted to go to the chocolate factory, but someone said you were too old for school trips now and you'd be arrested.
Those researchers also found that, without consciously thinking it, we assume that our own future is a wide-open horizon of possibilities ("Where will I be in five years? Who knows?"), but we think the futures of the people around us are basically set ("Steve will definitely get a promotion; he's really smart."). In other words, we're the only ones whose day-to-day choices actually matter. Everyone but us is a robot running a program. A program written by the man.
And any day now, you'll break free of the matrix and just fly away.
But not us! Because we're awesome.
For more modern ideas that were here before us, check out 11 Modern Technologies That Are Way Older Than You Think and 6 Depraved Sexual Fetishes That Are Older Than You Think.
And to further expand your noggin, check out Cracked's De-Textbook: The Stuff You Didn't Know About the Stuff You Thought You Knew.
It's loaded with facts about history, your body, and the world around you that your teachers didn't want you to know. And as a bonus? We've also included the kinkiest sex acts ever described in the Bible.