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The Superiority Illusion: where everyone is above average

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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NOTE: April Fool’s always catches me completely by surprise, and I’m really terrible at practical jokes anyway. So today’s post is not a joke. Real study. Really.

Welcome to Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.

Garrison Keillor


Much as we all like to think we’re modest, most of us really aren’t. We might try to be humble and say “we’re just some guy, you know?“, but most often, we actually think we’re better than average. Maybe we think we’re smarter, or better looking, or nicer, or maybe even all of the above.

And it turns out that thinking we’re above average (even though, statistically, only half of us CAN be above average) is actually good for us. People who suffer from depression usually show a symptom called “depressive realism”. They actually see themselves MORE REALISTICALLY than other people do. And seeing yourself in the harsh light of reality…well it’s pretty depressing (you don’t really want to know how average you are in a sea of over 6 billion people. You don’t). Thinking that you are better than you actually are is sometimes called the Dunning-Kruger effect (though that usually refers specifically to how competent you think you are…when really you’re not), but in psychology it’s called the Superiority Illusion: the belief that you are better than average in any particular metric.

But where does the superiority illusion come from? How do our brains give us this optimism bias?

Yamada et al. “Superiority illusion arises from resting-state brain networks modulated by dopamine” PNAS, 2013.

The authors of this study wanted to look at how our brain might give us the idea that we are better than the other guy. They were particularly interested in the connection between two areas of the brain, the frontal cortex, and the striatum. The frontal cortex does a lot of higher processing (things like sense of self), while the striatum is involved in things like feelings of reward. The connection between these two areas is called the fronto-striatal circuit. And the strength of that connection may mean something for how you think of yourself. While people who think well of themselves have relatively low connectivity in this circuit, people with depression have higher levels of connectivity. The two areas are MORE connected.

And the authors were also interested in the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is a particularly important chemical in things like reward processing, attention, and the expectation of pleasurable sensations. But the actual actions of dopamine depend heavily on the receptors that it hits. If it hits dopamine D1-type receptors, for example, it will often stimulate cells to fire. If it hit dopamine D2-type receptors, it will inhibit cells from firing.

And how many of each type of receptor that you have in certain areas can change how you think of yourself. For example, people with fewer D2 receptors in the striatum (associated with things like reward, etc), think better of themselves, than people who have high amounts of D2 receptors in the same area.

The authors wanted to know how these two things, the fronto-striatal circuit and dopamine receptors, related to how people think of themselves. They took a group of normal volunteers, all of whom had something of the superiority illusion. Then they gave them both an fMRI test and a PET scan. The fMRI was to look at the level of connectivity in the fronto-striatal circuit, while the PET scan used radioligand bound dopamine receptor agonists to look at the concentrations of D2 receptors in the striatum.

They showed that the amount of conntectivity in the fronto-striatal circuit was inversely related to how people viewed themselves. The more connectivity, the less people suffered from the superiority illusion.

The authors also showed that the decreased connectivity in the fronto-striatal circuit was correlated with decreased D2 receptor binding. So low connectivity and low binding are associated with a pretty good view of yourself. The authors think that the dopamine in the striatum acts on the D2 receptors to decrease the connectivity in the fronto-striatal circuit, resulting in a better view of yourself. So the more dopamine you have, the bigger of a decrease in connectivity, and the better the view of yourself. Conversely, the less dopamine, the less inhibition and a stronger connection, and the more realistic your appraisal of your own averageness.

Keep in mind, though, this is fMRI data, though it is also strengthened with PET imaging. fMRI data looks at the relative activity of some areas of the brain compared to others during a task (so, say, for a self-evaluation task, the control might be the cerebellum, which presumably doesn’t have much meaningful activity to be doing during self-evaluation). But because you are comparing activity in only one or two regions with activity in a reference (looking at the activity from fMRI in ALL areas of the brain would be a monumental task), you tend to pick areas that you are pretty sure are going to show activity correlated with what you’re looking for. In other words, there are few surprises with fMRI, you generally find what you expect to find.

In addition, even with the addition of the PET imaging for the dopamine receptors, this activity is still only correlative. So you can say that the activity in these circuits and the dopamine measures are correlated with people’s feelings of their own superiority, but you can’t REALLY say that the lower connectivity here is what gives people the feeling they are above average. In order to do that, you would have to be able to specifically stimulate say, the dopamine system, or the connectivity the frontal cortex and the striatum. You could actually probably do this with a D2 receptor agonist, though getting it just in the striatum would be a difficult thing. If someone then thinks they are totally better than everyone else (or, say, a depressed person suddenly feels much better about themselves), you might be able to say that this connection and the dopaminergic activity in it DETERMINES whether you think you’re better than other people. Right now? It’s correlated, and they did a model. But they didn’t do the actual test. It could be the upstream precursor higher processes, or the downstream effect of “lower” processes like those in the limbic system. You can’t really say for certain.

But it does pose an interesting idea for how to deal with people with depression. People with depression often feel worthless, or that they just aren’t as bright or talented as they actually are. Other studies have shown that people with depression can have hyperconnectivity in the fronto-striatal circuit. We saw in this study that LESS connectivity is correlated with thinking you’re above average. So, IF the hyperconnectivity is the CAUSE of feeling you’re not as great, it might be possible to dampen the activity in that circuit, and maybe make people feel better about themselves. But that’s a lot of ifs. You’d have to be make sure that was the case, you’d have to be able to specifically target the activity of this circuit, and you’d have to be sure that the feelings of worthlessness that people with depression feel are the most important problem that they have. As is it, and as the authors themselves note, the symptom of feeling worthless, and the underlying neurobiology, are probably part of a large interconnected system that has many differences during depression. So I don’t think it’s something that we will be using any time soon. But the idea of connections and feelings of self-worth is still an interesting one to think about.

Yamada, M., Uddin, L., Takahashi, H., Kimura, Y., Takahata, K., Kousa, R., Ikoma, Y., Eguchi, Y., Takano, H., Ito, H., Higuchi, M., & Suhara, T. (2013). Superiority illusion arises from resting-state brain networks modulated by dopamine Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110 (11), 4363-4367 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1221681110

Scicurious About the Author: Scicurious is a PhD in Physiology, and is currently a postdoc in biomedical research. She loves the brain. And so should you. Follow on Twitter @Scicurious.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Comments 16 Comments

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  1. 1. CChambers 9:27 am 04/1/2013

    Nice post – and an interesting paper.

    Let’s kick off the comments section with some pedantic statistics! I only mention this because I see this mistake a lot. You say that “statistically, only half of us CAN be above average” but actually this is only true if the distribution is perfectly symmetrical, i.e. if the median = the mean. But if the distribution is asymmetrically skewed (as many things are) then >50% will be either above or below average.

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  2. 2. scicurious 12:39 pm 04/1/2013

    Hahah, hi CChambers. :)

    I do agree that the idea that only half of us can be above average if the distribution is symmetrical, but I would also argue that for many metrics where we rate humans beings (say, IQ, physical attractiveness), we artificially FORCE the distribution into symmetry, either by adjusting the average (for IQ) or by allowing only for a specific range of responses (such as metrics for physical attractiveness). So I would say in many of the measures in which we rate ourselves we often making the distribution as normal as possible (except, of course, in economics).

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  3. 3. OgreMk5 12:41 pm 04/1/2013

    I prefer to compare myself to sea cucumbers than other humans. It just makes me feel better. I have a spine, for example. Sure, my life isn’t all beer and skittles, but I don’t vomit up my own stomach to escape predators.

    Yep, comparing yourself to an invertebrate is the way to look at things… except for octopi. Don’t go there. That way lie madness.

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  4. 4. suitti 2:21 pm 04/1/2013

    I’m fond of saying that “about half of are below average”. It’s often very funny. But IMO, nearly everyone is above average in some way. There are so many traits and skills to choose from. The opposite is that no matter how good you are at just about anything, there’s someone out there who’s better.

    Last year, my Dad sent me my K-8 report cards. It wasn’t my grades that caught my eye. Apparently, i took a standardized test in 3rd grade. Along with how i did on it, they said that 85% of students in the school performed above average – the national average. My peers would have to have scored in the 15th percentile to be “average”. It wasn’t Lake Wobegone, but somewhere nearby. It could explain why i don’t remember anyone in K-8 who, in retrospect, displayed ADHD symptoms. But the more i think about that, the less sense it makes.

    On the other hand, i’ve never come across anything mature suggesting what attitude you should have if you are clearly above average by some objective measure(s). I’d suggest focusing on doing the best you can.

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  5. 5. thanatos 3:20 pm 04/1/2013

    I was curious about something.
    4 findings and facts in this article indicate as follows:

    (1): “people with depression have higher levels of connectivity [in the circuit]” and vice versa.
    (2): “people with fewer D2 receptors in the striatum, think better of themselves”.
    (3): “The more connectivity, the less people suffered from the superiority illusion.”
    (4): “decreased connectivity in the fronto-striatal circuit was correlated with decreased D2 receptor binding”.

    If we simplify the four facts in this article, we have:

    (1): High connectivity = more negative feelings (depression).
    (2): Less D2 receptors = less negative feelings.
    (3): High connectivity = less superiority (more negative feelings).
    (4): Low connectivity = low D2 binding.

    And “The authors think that the dopamine in the striatum acts on the D2 receptors to decrease the connectivity in the fronto-striatal circuit, resulting in a better view of yourself.”

    The authors allude that dopamine action on D2 decreases connectivity and results in less negative feelings.
    However, (2) and (4) both correlate less dopamine action through D2 with less connectivity and less negative feelings.

    “So the more dopamine you have, the bigger of a decrease in connectivity, and the better the view of yourself. Conversely, the less dopamine, the less inhibition and a stronger connection, and the more realistic your appraisal of your own averageness.”

    This model, then, doesn’t follow from the facts presented.
    If someone could point out where I fail to see the logic I would gladly appreciate it.

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  6. 6. scicurious 3:49 pm 04/1/2013

    thanatos: actually, it does make logical sense, it’s just a little twisty.

    Dopamine D2 receptors are INHIBITORY in nature, resulting in (according to this model), less connectivity, and a better feeling about yourself. The more dopamine you have, the more you stimulate those receptors, leading to less connectivity. The D2 receptor levels will be lower because high dopamine levels will desensitize receptor levels.

    Does that help?

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  7. 7. thanatos 4:07 pm 04/1/2013

    Thanks for replying! Feedback is always helpful :)

    So that would mean for there to be less D2 receptors in the striatum, at some point they had to be overstimulated and then desensitized? That would explain why people with less D2 receptors in the striatum feel better. Maybe due to an overall higher levels of dopamine?

    But then why would decreased connectivity be correlated with decreased D2 binding? As you said, more dopamine means more stimulation on receptors. Maybe I misunderstand the concept of ‘binding’?

    Sorry if I’m asking about obvious things, but this stuff is really interesting :)

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  8. 8. scicurious 4:10 pm 04/1/2013

    Hi thanatos: Yes I think the question is the understanding of binding. More dopamine means more stimulation on receptors, and those receptors will then be downregulated and desensitized and go away from the membrane. The measures of “binding” only apply to the dopamine D2 receptors on the membrane. So overall high levels of dopamine mean less D2 binding, as the receptors are downregulated.

    Does that help?

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  9. 9. thanatos 4:14 pm 04/1/2013

    Yes, thank you very much for taking the time to explain it, scicurious :)

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  10. 10. vagnry 4:31 pm 04/1/2013

    Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit!

    But not in this life, I think, maybe in the afterlife?

    What I am trying to get at, is not so much in the mechanics of the superiority feeling, but in the why?

    To continue in the biblical terms “Neither do men light a lamp, and put it under a bushel, but on a lamp stand; and it gives light unto all that are in the house.”

    Having a high, even though unfounded, opinion of one self might on average get more offspring, and better jobs/wages, than having a low opinion of yourself, I guess!

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  11. 11. vapur 5:11 pm 04/1/2013

    Focusing on positive thoughts for endorphins, and minimizing cortisol producing negative thoughts. Cognitive therapy already gives us a way to “dampen the circuitry”.

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  12. 12. sjfone 1:01 am 04/2/2013

    Don’t blame my receptors man, I lacked metacognition and didn’t realize I was a dumb-ass.

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  13. 13. cogi_tater 11:28 am 04/3/2013

    This study is interesting in the light of addiction. It is well established that addicts/alcoholics show reduced D2 receptors in the striatum. Thus, I’m left wondering if anyone has examined the Dunning-Kruger effect in addicts as opposed to controls (both with low and high relative amounts to D2 in the striatum)?

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  14. 14. bucketofsquid 5:35 pm 04/10/2013

    Vagnry has a good point – having a good opinion of oneself leads to requesting better compensation and taking greater risks. People who ask for more tend to actually get more. People who take risks will fail more but also tend to have more successes because they do what others won’t. As long as they are not delusional about the risk levels involved they generally don’t die.

    sjfone – I’ve been depressed all my life but the meds get better on a regular basis. Unfortunately I figured out long ago that we are almost all dumb-asses. That doesn’t make you below average. It just makes you normal. If someone isn’t a dumb-ass then they are probably evil incarnate.

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  15. 15. bucketofsquid 5:35 pm 04/10/2013

    @ cogi_tater – I’d like to know the outcome of such a study as well.

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  16. 16. JoeJeffrey 12:48 pm 04/14/2013

    The paper and article are a perfect example of the confusion between a fact about a person and a fact about the brain of the person. The paper is fascinating: it shows what parts of the brain are involved in a certain kind of behavioral fact, namely having the self-concept that one is superior. But the title is logical nonsense, because it states that the physiological fact causes or produces the behavioral one — a fundamental category error. It’s the logical equivalent of saying, “The chess master moved his bishop to e5 because it was too heavy.” Physiology, at all levels of detail, is **part of** behavior, but not **the same thing as** behavior. The cost of that error is enormous: it creates a “lens” through which many, many important, interesting, and valuable questions become difficult to see: how do changes in self-concept correlate with various neurological details? how do variations of the superior self-concept (a great parent but average football player vs. the reverse) correlate with variations of the neurology? etc. etc. etc. By far the best formulation of self-concept is due to P. G. Ossorio, an excellent presentation of which by Bergner and Holmes can be found at Formulations of neurophysiological studies incorporating that conceptualization would be truly remarkable and valuable.

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