Last month, I wrote about a Dove video that went viral in which a small group of women describe themselves to a sketch artist in a more negative way than how a stranger whom they’ve just met described them. The resulting sketches based on the stranger’s descriptions are far more attractive, leading Dove to conclude that women are “more beautiful than they think.”
But there wasn’t any way to test whether these women really had a negative self-image or were just being overly modest about their looks because, heck, they didn’t want to seem full of themselves on camera.
Most likely, it was the latter, based on a spate of recent research studies measuring the accuracy of our self-perceptions. Researchers found that study volunteers who were asked to distinguish real photos of themselves from those that were modifed tended to pick ones that were modifed to make themselves look more attractive than they really were, instead of the unmodified original. With strangers, they tended to identify the unmodified photos.
“Inflated perceptions of one’s physical appearance is a manifestation of a general phenomenon psychologists call ‘self-enhancement,’ ” writes Ozgun Atasoy in an online article on Scientific American’s website. “Researchers have shown that people overestimate the likelihood that they would engage in a desirable behavior, but are remarkably accurate when predicting the behavior of a stranger.”
More than 90 percent of us think we are above-average drivers and more than 90 percent of college professors think they do work that’s above the norm, both of which are statisically impossible. The average person thinks his health is better than most or that she gives more to charity than her neighbor.
Is there an evolutionary upside to self-enhancement? Sociologists say there might be. Having positive attributes can make us fit in better socially but lying can be taxing for the deceiver. If we don’t actually think we’re lying, we get both upsides of a better social status and no mental drain from the deception.
What do you think? Are you more likely or less likely than average to inflate your own looks? Did the Dove ad get it wrong?Deborah Kotz can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.