A person expresses false uniqueness, an inaccurate social comparison, when that individual perceives that differences between his or her own attitudes, abilities, and behaviors and those of others are larger than they really are (Suls & Wan 1987). This difference is thought especially prevalent when one’s own behavior is desirable and the individual estimates the prevalence of others exhibiting, or willing to exhibit, the same or similar behaviors (Monin & Norton 2003). The result is an underestimate of how common one’s desirable attributes and successful behaviors are in relation to those of others and one essentially casts oneself in the role of “better than thou.”
Historical treatises stimulating investigation of false uniqueness can be found in Festinger (1954), Schachter (1959), and Fields and Schuman (1976 – 1977). Their various approaches to explaining the human mind focused on the social comparisons that an individual makes between self and others. According to Fields & Schuman, a particular problem humans face during this process is that direct information on others’ views may be absent, unavailable, equivocal, or for some reason not sufficiently compelling. Nonetheless, humans do not let informational deficiencies prevent them from estimating what others think or do. Holmes (1978) used the term “attributional projection” to summarize situations when differences are found between perceptions and actuality, but noted that the functionality of the process requires more evidence than projection theories have been able to provide. Campbell (1986) found that individuals overestimated consensus for their opinions and low abilities, but underestimated consensus for high abilities. In other words, people tend to think their high abilities are shared by a smaller proportion of the population than really exists. Campbell isolated important predictors of over-and underestimation. Higher relevancy on ability was associated with decreased accuracy, greater overestimation on low abilities, and greater underestimation on high abilities. Individuals with higher self-esteem were more likely to overestimate the sharing of opinions by others, but also were more likely to underestimate others’ shared high abilities. Psychological fear also has been shown to be an important mediating variable in explaining false uniqueness. Low-fear subjects tended to underestimate the incidence of low-fear among their peers, while high-fear subjects were more inaccurate in their estimates of high fear among peers (Suls and Wan 1987).
Earlier, Fields and Schuman (1976 –1977) explored three Detroit sample surveys to examine social comparisons concerning issues of racism. They found great inaccuracies in perceptions of others across a spectrum of racial issues. In particular, they isolated a process demonstrating that respondents felt others’ opinions were the same as their own. They also postulated a “conservative bias,” the perception that the population is more conservative on racial issues than it actually is (see also Glynn 1989). They explained these phenomena by evoking the widespread understanding that American ideals were at odds with racial prejudice. In this case, racial conservatives thought of themselves as no worse than others (who were perceived as even more conservative), but liberals were prone to think of themselves as closer to the ideal than the average, illustrating the difference between false consensus (conservative perception) and false uniqueness (liberal perception). Fields and Schuman (1976 –1977) summarized additional factors affecting or interacting with accuracy of perceptions: communication, coordination, object salience, role relationships, attraction, personality traits, and view of others’ social positions.
There may be a cultural bias implicit in the concept of false uniqueness. Heine et al. (1999) found the phenomenon was rare among Japanese, whereas it was common among Americans (Campbell 1986). Vignoles et al. (2000) referred to a “distinctiveness principle,” or a motive within identity that pushes toward establishing and maintaining a sense of difference between oneself and others. This motive, apparently typical within western cultures, is not incompatible with non-western cultural systems; however, distinctiveness in non-western cultures more likely will be associated with group distinctiveness rather than individual distinctiveness.
- Campbell, J. D. (1986). Similarity and uniqueness: The effects of attribute type, relevance, and individual differences in self-esteem and depression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 281–294.
- Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7, 117–140.
- Fields, J. M., & Schuman, H. (1976 –1977). Public beliefs about the beliefs of the public. Public Opinion Quarterly, 40, 427– 448.
- Glynn, C. J. (1989). Perceptions of others’ opinions as a component of public opinion. Social Science Research, 18, 53 – 69.
- Heine, S. J., Lehman, D. R., Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (1999). Is there a universal need for positive self-regard? Psychological Review, 106, 766 –794.
- Holmes, D. S. (1978). Projection as a defense mechanism. Psychological Bulletin, 85, 677– 688.
- Monin, B., & Norton, M. I. (2003). Perceptions of a fluid consensus: Uniqueness bias, false consensus, false polarization, and pluralistic ignorance in a water conservation crisis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 559 –567.
- Schachter, S. (1959). The psychology of affiliation: Experimental studies on the sources of gregariousness. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- 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.
- Vignoles, V. L., Chryssochoou, X., & Breakwell, G. M. (2000). The distinctiveness principle: Identity, meaning, and the bounds of cultural relativity. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 4, 337–354.