Overcoming the Better-Than-Average Effect
Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9 )
How would you rate your driving ability in comparison to everybody else? What about your intelligence? Memory? Popularity? Honesty? Personality?
Research on the better-than-average effect demonstrates that most people rate themselves as being higher than average across a wide-range of skills, intelligence, and personality characteristics (including the ones mentioned in the above questions), even though it is statistically impossible for a majority of people to be above average in any particular area.
The theory behind these findings is that most of us have a self-enhancement bias, meaning that we are prone to interpret the world in a way that makes us feel better about ourselves, even if it is not true. We even have a bias that assumes that we are less biased than the average person!
While discussing related concepts in his book The Happiness Hypothesis, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses a metaphor of “the inner lawyer” to describe these tendencies. It is like we have an attorney inside our heads whose job it is to always defend ourselves against any possibility of fault.
In the Jewish spiritual-ethical literature, we are called upon to overcome these biased tendencies as they are detrimental to the trait of humility and disregard the values of truth and honesty. They can also negatively impact our relationship with others and with God.
In the beginning of this week's Torah portion, Moses outlines a robust system of governance to ensure justice: “You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities… and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment” (Deut. 16:18). Some commentators notice a superfluous word in the verse. It could have just stated to set up judges and officials in all your cities, but instead it adds the word “lecha” – for yourself. What added meaning can be deduced from emphasizing that the judges and officials are “for yourself”?
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein suggests that the “for yourself” transforms the message from being one exclusively about governance and community to a personalized message about the inner life of each individual. We are all called on to be our own inner judge, to ensure that our actions are proper. We should also be our own law enforcement official to make sure that we follow through on the proper course of action.
The subsequent commands that seem to be speaking directly to judges now apply to all of us personally, when judging ourselves. We should “not judge unfairly,” “show favoritism,” or “take a bribe,” (Deut. 16:19) in the evaluation of our own selves.
In a direct reversal of the self-enhancement bias and the above-average effect, Rabbi Feinstein suggests that even if we are in reality a Torah scholar or a righteous person, we should not assume that what we are doing is virtuous. Rather, we should view ourselves as a simple and average person and judge ourselves accordingly.
Our inner lawyer can be very good at his or her job, effectively justifying our self-enhanced beliefs, defending us against seeing our faults, and making us seem better to ourselves than we are in reality. We are called on to counterbalance the defense attorney with a fair, righteous, and honest judge, who can help us ground our beliefs about ourselves in truth and reality. Doing so will help us stay appropriately self-aware, allowing us to improve and grow, and become more righteous individuals.