The False Uniqueness Effect - Are we really as unique as we think we are?

Updated on 18th December, 2022

The False Uniqueness Effect Definition

We all make comparisons between ourselves and others, which is termed social comparisons by social psychologists. We evaluate how we measure up to our peers in qualities such as intelligence or how funny we are. But how accurate are we when making these comparisons? The False Uniqueness Effect suggests that we are not so accurate after all.

In technical terms, the False Uniqueness Effect is an attributional bias of self-perception and belongs to the social psychology domain. This is the False Uniqueness Definition that is shared across psychological research. This may sound complicated, but it simply means an unconscious skewing in the perceptions we hold about ourselves and others around us.

Men tend to experience the False Uniqueness Effect for both physical and social traits
Men tend to experience the False Uniqueness Effect for both physical and social traits

In the case of the False Uniqueness Effect, this refers to the tendency to overestimate our differences from other people. Typically, this involves underestimating others’ desirable personal qualities in comparison to ourselves. These qualities include our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and even abilities. We might think we possess more or less of one of these than our peers when our peers report having the same level of that trait.

For example, someone who overestimates their desirable traits might believe that they recycle more than their neighbors when their neighbors’ recycling bin is just as full. On the flip side, it can also mean that we underestimate our undesirable traits in comparison to the people around us. An example of this is thinking you indulge in less junk food than your friends, or that you lose your temper less than your partner.

Fun Fact – Researchers have observed a gender bias in the False Uniqueness Effect. Generally, men tend to experience the False Uniqueness Effect for both physical and social traits, whereas women tend to only think they are more unique in terms of social traits.

What is The False Uniqueness Effect?

There are several explanations for why we experience the False Uniqueness Effect. A False Uniqueness example is the self-enhancement theory, which is the idea that the False Uniqueness Effect stems from a desire to see oneself in a favorable light. If we see ourselves favorably, it is likely to have a positive effect on our mood and self-perception.

The self-enhancement theory also suggests how the False Uniqueness Effect might be a way of compensating for our less-than-desirable qualities. For example, a person might dislike how much they smoke, so they will think of themselves as more charitable.

Moreover, the False Uniqueness Effect can serve as a form of self-preservation, where if we think that we have less of a negative quality than others, this can protect us from seeing ourselves negatively, and avoid the detrimental consequences this has on our self-perception.

A way of compensating for our less-than-desirable qualities
A way of compensating for our less-than-desirable qualities

Other explanations look at the cognitive mechanisms that might underly the False Uniqueness Effect. One of these mechanisms is egocentrism, which is our tendency to place more emphasis and thought on our own emotions, attributes, traits, and thoughts than those of others. If we experience an emotion, trait, or ability less or more than others, it might lead us to believe we are different in those areas.

Because we are less likely to examine others as closely, it means that we might misattribute those traits as very different, or unique, because we discount the presence of those traits in others. In other words, egocentrism tends to skew our social comparisons towards only looking at traits in ourselves and not having an accurate perception and of them in our peers.

Linda Perloff and Philip Brickman psychological fear experiements
Linda Perloff and Philip Brickman psychological fear experiements

A similar explanation is the selective accessibility model of social comparison. This model suggests that the information we already hold in our minds is more accessible to us than new information and can be thought of as an “anchor” upon which we base our judgments and decisions around. We place more emphasis on this anchor, in a process known as availability heuristics. In terms of social comparisons, information about ourselves is far more accessible and will come more easily to mind because we know ourselves and our personal qualities far more than we know others. For example, we know much more about our own abilities than others, so we might believe that we are better at these abilities than those around us. This makes us susceptible to underestimating or overestimating traits in others because we don’t have as much information about them.

An exception – Not all traits are equal when it comes to the False Uniqueness Effect. Research has shown that concepts that are less clearly defined, such as morality or happiness, can lead to stronger False Uniqueness Effect examples. This occurs because they are less measurable, and therefore are more vulnerable to inaccuracy in our estimates when making social comparisons.

History of the False Uniqueness Effect

It’s not entirely clear who discovered the False Uniqueness Effect, but its first mention can be traced back to a research review published in 1982 by Linda Perloff and Philip Brickman. In their review, they identified the False Uniqueness Effect when looking at how people perceive their own vulnerability to future events such as illness or death.

Their findings were followed up by Jerry Suls and Choi K. Wan, who published a study in 1987. They found that people who experienced a low level of psychological fear, which participants considered desirable, underestimated the number of their peers who had a low level of fear, too. Since then, the effect has been investigated in a variety of contexts, such as kindness, honesty, athleticism, social skills, management, and even driving.

In all these cases, people thought they were better at these things than their peers. It has also been examined when looking at undesirable outcomes, where study participants thought they were less likely than others to experience a mugging, lose employment or suffer an addiction.

Avoiding homeless people on the street - Are you any better than others?
Avoiding homeless people on the street - Are you any better than others?

Case Examples of the False Uniqueness Effect

Case 1: You might be thinking this doesn’t apply to you, which is a perfect False Uniqueness Effect example in action, but we digress. Let’s examine an unpopular trait that is susceptible to the False Uniqueness effect: selfishness. Even though Western society leans more towards an individualistic and capitalist outlook on life, selfishness is frowned upon. However, most of us are more selfish than we think. Take the example of a street charity fundraiser or a homeless person on the street. How comfortable would you feel admitting the number of times you’ve sped right past them and avoided eye contact? It’s most likely you don’t find this particular behavior appealing, and wouldn’t like to be too honest about it, even though it’s fairly common.

If anyone asked, would you say that other people are more likely to ignore or avoid charity workers? The likelihood is that other people don’t avoid fundraisers any more than you do, and you’re overestimating how much they do so because it makes you feel a little better about doing it yourself. Here, you can see how the self-enhancement theory factors into the False Uniqueness Effect. Exaggerating how much other people ignore homeless people or charity fundraisers can help to minimize this aspect of ourselves.

The False Uniqueness Effect - You handling Covid the best
The False Uniqueness Effect - You handling Covid the best

Case 2: We’re sorry for bringing it up, but the False Uniqueness Effect can also be seen in the Covid-19 pandemic. A key piece of advice throughout the pandemic has been maintaining good hygiene. Good hygiene is highly valued and a desirable trait while poor hygiene has negative social consequences and is inarguably an undesirable trait. Yet, the epidemic brought a heightened focus on hygiene practices and reminded us of their importance. Here is a question to consider: Did you think you were better at following the rules than others? A recent 2022 study by James Adaryukov suggests you probably did.

Adaryukov asked a sample of university students to estimate how frequently they wore masks on-campus and off-campus, and how often they thought others did. In line with the False Uniqueness Effect, he found that participants consistently believed others wore masks less both on and off campus than themselves. Participants also reported that they viewed wearing a mask as morally desirable. This an example of the False Uniqueness Effect because they underestimated how often others behaved in a desirable way, which in this case was mask-wearing.

Your perception of a musician’s popularity wasn’t as accurate as you thought
Your perception of a musician’s popularity wasn’t as accurate as you thought

Case 3: Do the words “I listened to them before they were mainstream!” sound familiar? Perhaps you or a friend have said these exact words before. A lot of people are dismayed when their favorite underground band explodes into popularity. Surely, they should be thrilled that their beloved singer-songwriters are getting more exposure and experiencing the perks of commercial success. Yet one look at the YouTube comments under their latest music video shows otherwise. So, why is this the case? It’s the False Uniqueness Effect. Popular music can be seen as “basic,” and the people who listen to it are often accused of being unoriginal and a follower. This makes having a penchant for musicians that, once upon a time, would’ve been all over the MTV music channel, undesirable.

On the other hand, listening to less-known music can be seen as desirable, and you may see yourself as a trend-setter, and as being a more interesting or unique person. If you’re wondering if this is you, think back to any occasions where you might have said “I knew them before they were cool!.” That sense of musicians “selling out” might be due to you underestimating how many other people listen to them—and maybe they were more popular than you originally thought. It can also mean that those songs blasting out the speakers in every mall or fast-food place don’t have the huge following you think it does. This can lead to you realize your perception of a musician’s popularity wasn’t as accurate as you thought. Maybe your music taste isn’t so cutting edge after all?

A Beautiful Quote

“The differences that separate human beings are nothing compared to the similarities that bond us together”

- Sophie Gregoire Trudeau

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