Better than average

I’m Better Than That!

In one of our recent online qual studies, 29 out of 30 people claimed they expected to pay less under our client’s new pricing model. The new model was more performance-based than the previous model. All but one person we talked to therefore, felt they were better than the average person.

These 29 people were by no means recruited to reflect above averages performers. No, this was a blatant example of the better than average effect, otherwise known as ‘illusory superiority’. A bias we had run into in the past but rarely so blatantly.


The Context:

In this project, the Upwords team was helping our client a) optimize language explaining changes that would impact the price people would pay for their services, and b) ensure their clients understood the reasons for the change. Through an iterative online qualitative design, the findings successfully guided the client’s communications team as to how to explain the changes with clarity and confidence.

At the very end of our study, we asked the question:


‘What do you think these changes will mean for you personally’.


This simple question was critical in helping us understand how the changes were internalized by their customers. The responses to this question revealed that almost all felt their performance had been better than average, therefore they would pay less. So while customers felt they understood the changes and thought they were ‘fair’, there is a risk of backlash for the client when some customers find out they are in fact not better than average and therefore would be paying more.


The Better Than Average Effect:

The better than average effect is an interesting phenomenon. Mathematical laws tell us that we surely all cannot be above average. Yet study after study indicates that most North Americans rate themselves better than most people. It’s not just the ‘average’ person that does this. Convicted prisoners, in comparing themselves to other inmates rated themselves as more moral, trustworthy, honest, dependable, compassionate, generous, and law-abiding among other traits. Convicted prisoners even rated themselves better than the average non-prisoner on these traits (except for law-abiding…which was the trait they on which they rated themselves as equal to the average non-prisoner)!


Some other examples:

After completing our project, and thinking about the effect it could have on our client, other examples of how this phenomenon has appeared came to mind.

  • Alcohol drinkers think they now know how to ‘handle’ their booze (unlike when they were younger)
  • Cannabis users think they’re ‘better’ than most at completing daily tasks, and are not putting themselves (or others) in danger
  • People rate themselves highly on a research screener as making ‘healthy choices’ only for us to find out in mobile studies that they are in fact making unhealthy choices more often than not


Marketers and market researchers need to be aware of all sorts of biases and consider the impact they have on our work. Have you run into the better than average effect in your work or research? What impact has it had? We’d love to hear about other examples.