Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…
“Who is the fairest of them all?” We all know the legendary question asked by the narcissistic Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. We also know the mirror’s reply. But what is not so well known is that research has shown that most of us, like the Queen, also possess a touch of vanity. In fact, such studies have also shown that the average person believes they are superior to most other people in both their abilities and qualities.
Why do the majority of us believe we are better than most others? It’s known as the ‘better than average effect’. It does sound a bit silly, a conveniently coined phrase for the ultimate Narcissus, but there is merit to the argument. Across a broad range of life domains, people tend to see positive traits as more descriptive than negative traits, they rate themselves better than others, and they also tend to rate themselves higher than they are rated by others. This form of self-enhancement also includes a tendency for one to overestimate their own importance and how much one actually contributes to a group or an event.
But it gets better. The research goes further, stating people tend to think they are more attractive, honourable, capable and compassionate than others, as well as overestimating their popularity, including how much they would be missed if absent.
It’s worth pointing out that although most of us are influenced by the ‘better than average effect’ to some degree, and despite this effect creating the appearance of having tickets on ourselves, it does not of itself make us a Narcissus. To have a healthy sense of self is quite different from being excessively preoccupied with oneself or lacking in empathy.
Let’s leave our Evil Queen pondering her looks in the mirror and bring our ‘better than average’ concept closer to home – the men’s Australian Open tennis final. A bit of a segue perhaps, but it does add weight to the argument. I’m sure both players went into the match thinking they had the goods over the other, therefore we could fairly assume they both had the better than average effect going on. With only one player being able to win, you can see that, despite each player’s sense of self, something else comes into it, ultimately allowing someone to win.
Djokovic beat Thiem in a gruelling five-set match. In the first half of the match it seemed Thiem would win quite comfortably, but as the match progressed into the fourth and fifth set it seemed like Djokovic flicked a switch. He morphed into a robot-like state, relaxed and got the job done. Earlier on, he seemed so self-focussed that he choked under pressure. Perhaps he was thinking too much or trying too hard, which can be viewed as the flip side of self-control. This is what sports psychologists call an ‘ironic process’, where the harder you try to control a thought, feeling or behaviour, the less likely you are to succeed.
Maybe, at the end of the day, Djokovic just had more ‘better than average’ effect than Thiem did. Despite any effect or process that one player was trying to pull over the other, one thing was apparent: the crowd was rooting for Thiem. Australia loves an underdog and we had well and truly hit Thiem with the ‘halo effect’, a tendency for positive impressions of a person (or company, brand or product) in one area to positively influence one’s opinion or feelings in other areas. Our tall poppy, Djokovic, got slapped with the ‘horn effect’, a form of cognitive bias that causes one’s perception of another to be unduly influenced by a single negative trait. Despite this, he got up in what will no doubt be touted as one of the best finals of all time and certainly worthy of a mind game analysis.
As for the fairest of them all, it’s you, right? I beg to differ.
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