False Uniqueness Bias Definition
False uniqueness bias refers to the tendency for people to underestimate the proportion of peers who share their desirable attributes and behaviors and to overestimate the proportion who share their undesirable attributes. Typically, this bias has been assessed by collecting estimates that people make about the proportion of peers who have positive or negative traits/behaviors with the actual proportions who report these traits and behaviors. False distinctiveness is indexed by comparing the percentage of peers whom participants estimate act the same as they do with the actual sample statistic. Several studies have shown that people underestimate the proportion who also behave in a socially desirable way—an indication of false uniqueness. For example, persons who regularly engage in physical activity tend to underestimate the actual proportion of other people who exercise. For undesirable attributes and behaviors (such as smoking cigarettes), people overestimate the proportion of peers who behave the same way they do.
False Uniqueness Bias Explanation
This bias is thought to be the result of a self-enhancement or self-protective motivation: By underestimating the number of other people who behave desirably, the person can feel distinctively positive. On the other hand, perceiving one’s undesirable behaviors or attributes as more common than they actually are can create a feeling of “safety in numbers,” and help to justify irresponsible practices.
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Such self-serving biased estimates presumably are the product of constructive social comparison, that is, projections made up in the head. Although Leon Festinger’s classic social comparison theory focused on the effects of the actual relative standing of others on self-evaluations of abilities and opinions, people also cognitively construct standards in self-serving ways. George R. Goethals found, however, that people were less self-serving and more realistic in their estimates when the attribute was well defined. Thus, people are less likely to think that they are smarter than they are better in a moral sense. This is because it is easier to distort the norm for such things as being helpful or fair; intelligence has more reality constraints.
Relation to Other Social Perceptual Biases
False uniqueness can be distinguished from two other biases concerning social norms. False consensus refers to the tendency to attribute one’s own opinion or behavior to others. In this case, the estimates of behavioral subscribers are compared to the estimates of the same behavior by nonprescribers. For example, marijuana smokers report more people smoke marijuana than do nonsmokers. Unlike false uniqueness, false consensus is not assessed with respect to the actual consensus. Another difference is that in false consensus, the self-serving bias always takes the form of an overestimation of one’s own behavior. But when non-marijuana smokers exaggerate the use of marijuana (compared to actual reports), they are exhibiting false uniqueness.
Another related bias is pluralistic ignorance whereby people erroneously think their private opinions and behaviors are different from everybody else’s, even though everyone’s public behavior seems to be same. For example, people who lived in a small religious community, which condemned card playing and alcohol, assumed that everyone concurred because no one publicly engaged or spoke in favor of these practices (for fear of embarrassment or social censure). In actuality, quite a few people in this community behaved in these ways when their curtains were drawn. Unlike the other biases which seem to be self-serving, pluralistic ignorance emphasizes the individual’s distinctiveness and even alienation from others. It appears to persist because people are reluctant to let down their public facade.
False Uniqueness Bias Implications
False uniqueness permits the individual to think he or she has exceptional positive traits and behaves better than most other people. This perception may support general feelings of self-worth, but it also might contribute to overconfidence and lead to negative impressions of peers.
- Goethals, G. R., Messick, D. M., & Allison, S. (1991). The uniqueness bias: Studies in constructive social comparison. In J. Suls & T. A. Wills (Eds.), Social comparison: Contemporary theory and research (pp. 149-176). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Miller, D. T., & McFarland, C. (1987). Pluralistic ignorance: When similarity is interpreted as dissimilarity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 298-305.
- Ross, L., Greene, D., & House, P. (1977). The false consensus effect: An egocentric bias in social perception and attributional processes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 13, 279-301.
- Suls, J., & Wan, C. K. (1987). In search of the false uniqueness phenomenon: Fear and estimates of social consensus. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 211-217.
- Suls, J., Wan, C. K., & Sanders, G. S. (1988). False consensus and false uniqueness in estimating the prevalence of health-protective behaviors. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 18, 66-79.