Illusory Superiority Bias- Is everyone else actually a “sheep” or “asleep”?


As surprising as this may seem, research has shown that people tend to have a high opinion of themselves and their own intelligence when comparing themselves to others. You may have heard phrases like:

  • I’m actually smarter than most people.
  • Everyone else can’t understand this like I do.
  • I know so much more more about this than that group.
  • Everyone is brainwashed but me and a few others.
  • My group is always smarter and better at making decisions than the other one.
  • Those people are asleep! They need to get “woke” like me.

This type of interpretation is called a “bias”, and more specifically, an “Illusory Superiority Bias”, coined in 1991 by Van Yperen and Buunk. You may see these types of biases come in to play when an individual looks out on the broader group, and perceives them as less intelligent or less able to comprehend a specific point or idea that is familiar or important to the individual. This effect even applies between broader groups of people where an “in-group” is comparing themselves favorably to a supposedly ignorant “out-group”.  The problem is- a bias is an interpretation, a cognitive lens for viewing information which distorts it to fit a self-serving narrative. It is self-affirming, and to some people that superiority is very desirable and reinforcing.

The Illusory Superiorty Bias is not a person’s representation of other people, or other groups based on information, but rather a “a self-other asymmetry effect”, a substantial shift in how positive and negative factors are attributed to themselves and others. It is a cognitive filter for information, a prejudice, and distorts the interpretation of information that does not fit the narrative. Why do people exhibit it? We will dive in to some research that can help us explain this outspoken phenomenon. [1][4][5]


Two factors; Egocentrism and Focalism

To look at this bias (or biases) for what they are; researchers Windschitl et al. have devised a series of scenarios, level playing fields, in order to gauge the phenomena of people over-estimating their intelligence and ability compared to others. Given a “Shared Circumstance”; Person A and the “Others” having the exact same information or exact difficult situation, how likely would Person A expect themselves to deserve or perform better?

What Windschitl et al, predicted, and showed evidence of, were two different factors that effected these perceptions; Egocentrism, and Focalism. 

They described Egocentrism as “the notion that the self figures more prominently in decision making than do others“, in other words, decision making is decided more on factors being related to the person themselves. If Person A experiences _____, then it has a larger impact on their decisions than if they see Group B experiencing ____. [2][5]

Windschitl et al, described Focalism as “the tendency of people to focus on information relevant to one outcome and fail to adequately consider evidence or consequences relevant to other possible outcomes”. If Person A is dealing with _____ in relation to an objective, they focus much more heavily on those factors than external factors that may be playing a role with others relating to that same objective. [2][5]

Let’s run with some hypothetical examples of these to show just how an Illusory Superiority bias might look under these influences:

Egocentric-Influenced Superiority Bias“Why am I on hold? My issue is so frustrating. They should answer me first!”

Focalism-Influenced Superiority Bias“I’m actually the one that is going to get this job over the other 100 people, because my resume has this accomplishment, and I did this too.”

In both scenarios, the phone call for help, and the job interview; those situations were equally relevant to others going through the same thing, but these biases interpreted the situations, and the outcomes of those situations, favoring the individual. The individual’s perspective is what is deeming “importance” to themselves over others, and not a quantifiable factor. It is also important to note that in both of these  situations of biases; looking at the issue or situation from the other people’s perspective was not considered a first option. [2][5]

Let’s apply this to situations where this bias could have an impact on engaging with others on broader or social issues. If an individual viewing the world through the lens of illusory superiority, dialogue depending on seeing another’s view point is already off the table. Cognitively speaking, an egocentric influence would make seeing this issue from the other side as less important, and a focalism influence would only see the point through a non-objective evaluation on the self’s relation to the topic. The danger here would be getting entrenched in a view point where no others would be considered, because they would instantly be of less value to the individual.



Group Dynamics; it’s not just an individual.

It may not just be situations where a person perceives themselves as superior over others; there is also evidence that a hierarchy based on similar view-points and “in-groups” can emerge from this bias. The person may perceive themselves as highly favorable in a positive trait (like intelligence, or ironically empathy), and others that agree with them also are perceived as higher in these positive attributes. The “out-groups” and people who do not agree, however, are seen as lesser in these qualities, regardless of any actual measure. It is a prejudice. This kind of hierarchy looks something like this:

Person A- “I am very very intelligent and important”

In-Group Agreeing with Person A- “We are very intelligent and important”

Out-Group Disagreeing with Person A- “These people are unintelligent and not worth my time.”

Horsney, et al. showed with their piece of research on the topic that superiority bias also plays a role in interpersonal groups and inter-group domains. When this bias was exhibited, people tended to evaluate themselves with higher positive traits than others, but also gave similarly evaluated positive traits to people within their familiar group. This effect tends to explain how the Egocentric bias view stated above can be extended to other people that the person is familiar with or is associated with. [3]

In the author’s words; “that self-concept consists of not only one’s personal self but also the social groups to which one belongs and that people are motivated to view both levels of self in a relatively positive fashion. When evaluating the self relative to others, people demonstrate a wide range of self-serving biases. People consider themselves to be less likely than others to experience negative events in the future. People believe themselves to be less influenced than others by negative media messages but more influenced by pro-social messages . Finally, people attribute positive personality traits more to themselves than to other people in general.  Illusory superiority exists on dimensions as diverse as honesty, attractiveness, persistence, independence, and sincerity, and the bias gets larger as the trait is seen to be more desirable.” [3]

In other words, this bias can take place in groups as well, and the more favorable or desirable that trait is, the more the bias can take place. A person, or people, exhibiting this bias feels that they are not susceptible to misinformation, they are more honest, aware, hard-working, genuine, truthful, than others. Think of a positive trait. They would feel more likely to have it than the others outside of their group. That is what a bias is capable of, and how it can shape someone’s decision making. [3][5]


Breaking the Bias

The Illusory Superiority bias is a hindrance to the person or persons exhibiting it. It cuts them off from others, and paints “out-groups” as lesser than themselves. That judgement interferes with both learning and dialogue. The first step to breaking a bias, is of course, knowing it exists. Recognition of those biases taking place in the mind can lead a person to take steps to break them. Identifying those thoughts that perceive others as lesser, and challenging them.

Questions? Comments? Leave them below.


  1. Hoorens, V. (1995) . Self-Favoring Biases, Self-Presentation, and the Self-Other Asymmetry in Social Comparison. Journal of Personality, 63, 793-812.
  2. Windschitl, P. D., Kruger, J., & Simms, E. (2003). The Influence of Egocentrism and Focalism on People’s Optimism in Competitions: When What Affects Us Equally Affects Me More. Journal of Attitudes and Social Cognition.
  3. Hornsey, M. J. (2003). Linking Superiority Bias in the Interpersonal and Intergroup Domains. The Journal of Social Psychology, 143(4), 479-491.
  4. Hoorens, V. , & Buunk, B. P. (1993). Social comparison of health risks: Locus of control, the person-positivity bias, and unrealistic optimism. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 23, 291302
  5. Austin, W. G., & Worchel, S. (1986). Psychology of intergroup relations. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.

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