According to Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, people tend to overrate the positive aspects of themselves and their lives. For any given trait, people generally tend to believe they are above average. Whether it is driving, their work ethic, or their cooking skills people have overly positive views. Interestingly, this even goes beyond aspects that are controllable or really even influenced by the individual. Pinker writes, “people also hold the nonsensical belief that they are inherently lucky. Most people think they are more likely than the average person to attain a good first job, to have gifted children, and live to a ripe old age.”
It is one thing to be confident, but Pinker argues that we are outright deluded about ourselves when we compare ourselves to everyone else. This is puzzling because outright delusion doesn’t seem like it should make sense evolutionarily. Pinker writes, “it only begs the question of why our brains should be designed so that only unrealistic assessments make us happy and confident, as opposed to calibrating our contentment against reality.” Being overly confident seems like a strange strategy for our brains since it could lead us astray in a dangerous way. If we are too confident in our driving skills we may take a corner too quickly and end up in a dangerous crash. If our ancestors were too confident in themselves, they may have risked getting too close to an alligator and also ended up in a dangerous crash. Overconfidence has a limit where it should be hard to pass along genetically.
Pinker’s conclusion is that we are social creatures and that we can bluff our way into obtaining more resources, more status, and more allies than we may obtain if we followed a strategy of pure honesty. “It would be better for the species if no one exaggerated,” writes Pinker, “but our brains were not selected for the benefit of the species, and no individual can afford to be the only honest one in a community of self-enhancers.”
Lying, or at least bluffing and exaggerating the truth, helps us in social situations. We strive to present ourselves as stronger, more successful, and more faithful than we truly are so that we win more allies who will help us if we ever need it. These strategies help improve our social status, which may help us find a good partner with whom we can pass our genes along. We delude ourselves so that we can better delude others in this game of social self aggrandizement. We think we are better drivers, smarter, and even luckier than the average person, because the more genuine we can appear in our belief of our positive greatness, the better we can bluff others as well.