People say they are unique but don't seem to believe it, study finds

June 27, 2001

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- People say they are unique yet perceive themselves as largely similar to others, according to a new Brown University study that looks at individuals' perception of themselves and their social groups.

In a study of 152 Brown University undergraduates, students described their own personalities and the personality of the average student using many of the same adjectives. However when asked how typical a representative they were of the group, most indicated they were atypical.

"Your mother always told you you're special," said Joachim Krueger, associate professor of psychology and human development, and the study's lead researcher, "but subconsciously you do not believe it."

The students were asked to make judgments about themselves, their roommates, and the average student at the University. Participants were given a list of 24 socially desirable and undesirable traits and asked which applied to persons in each of those three categories.

The way in which students viewed themselves greatly affected how they viewed others in their social group. For example, those who perceived themselves as "neat" or "witty" were likely to assign those traits to their groups. That finding replicates previous research on social projection that shows perceptions of group characteristics depend, in part, on people's perceptions of themselves.

However, when asked whether they were a typical college student, most participants responded no. They appeared to project their own self-images onto the group, but they failed to realize that they had done so, according to Krueger, whose research appears in the July Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Additionally, Krueger found that participants' descriptions of their roommates did not overlap significantly with their descriptions of the average student despite the fact their roommate was a member of the student body.

Such an egocentric bias - the perception that the individual is more similar to the group than other members of the group are - may create barriers to the resolution of conflicts. If each person believes that most others agree with his or her own position, each person may be reluctant to make any concession when disagreements arise. "This barrier is particularly troublesome because people appear to be unaware of it," said Krueger.

The egocentric bias was demonstrated in this study, although most of the participating students indicated that they knew their roommates well and that they liked them.

The study consisted of two parts: students first responded to questions on a computer and later to questions from an interviewer during sessions attended by their roommates. The average age of the study participants was 18.

Participants described themselves very similarly upon repeated testing, while their descriptions of their roommates varied. That may be because a person's sense of self is firmly encoded in memory and thus comes to mind easily when the person is asked to predict what the group is like, Krueger said.
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The study was funded by a Salomon Grant from Brown University and conducted by Krueger and David Stanke, a 1999 Brown graduate. More research is needed to determine whether people's belief in their uniqueness is unconscious (as their sense of being similar to the group appears to be) or whether the belief in one's own uniqueness is motivated by a desire to comply with the social norm of individualism.

Brown University

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