Illusory Superiority

Beckham perfect model of how to react to a setback

By Matthew Syed

This article was originally posted at The Sunday Times. Read the original post here.

Most of us think we are better than we are. In fact, the tendency is so powerful that psychologists have given it a name: illusory superiority. When a group of drivers were surveyed to see how they rated themselves in terms of their driving skills and safety, for example, 93 per cent thought that they were better than average.

This phenomenon also affects the super-intelligent. In a survey of professors at the University of Nebraska, “68 per cent rated themselves in the top 25 per cent for teaching ability, and more than 90 per cent rated themselves as above average”.

When we are overlooked, it can lead to a sense of injustice that can be destructive
I was thinking of all this in the context of the exclusive story in The Times yesterday that Chris Ashton — after not being selected for the England rugby union tour to Australia — had refused the invitation, possibly in a fit of pique, to go with the Saxons (effectively the B team) on their tour to South Africa, potentially burning his bridges with Eddie Jones, the England head coach.
Selection processes, you see, inevitably lead to resentment and rancour. This would be so even if we were objective about our worth to the team, and merely upset that we hadn’t made the cut.

But this is magnified many times over by the phenomenon of illusory superiority. After all, if we all suppose that we are significantly better than we really are, it is almost impossible to accept that the person who dropped us from the team acted in good faith.

You see this in corporations where even the lowest-performing employees are horrified (in an entirely sincere way) that they haven’t been promoted. “Doesn’t the boss realise how brilliant I am?”

You see it in politics, too, where almost every person who fails to get into the cabinet within 18 months of entering parliament wonders about the sanity of the prime minister. You also see it in newspapers, where editors seem to be unpopular with at least 90 per cent of their writers.

Why? Because every journalist thinks he is pretty much the finest writer on the paper, and should therefore be given privileged access to the limited space. “Surely my piece should have walked into the section? It was much better than the rubbish they put on page 98!”

But perhaps the phenomenon of illusory superiority is taken to its apotheosis in sport. When I was 16, I was selected for the table tennis world championships in New Delhi. It was a close call for the selectors, because there were two older players, called Jimmy Stokes and John Souter, around the same ability level, who they could have plumped for instead. In the end, they went for youth.

Many disagreed with the decision, and yet accepted that the selectors had acted in good faith.
But for Souter and Stokes, it was a betrayal they couldn’t get their heads around. They pretty much quit table tennis on the spot. Stokes became a plumber in his dad’s firm and Souter a courier. “If they aren’t going to select me now, when I am clearly the best player around, there is little point in continuing” was their thinking, or something to that effect.

I still feel saddened by their decision, all these years later, because they loved the game, were marvellous team-mates, and would have made it to the top had they continued. And yet they effectively burned their bridges.

Don’t we see these kinds of outbursts again and again when people are dropped, in sport and life?

For a contemporary example, take cycling. We don’t yet know the outcome of the independent inquiry into — among other things — whether Shane Sutton used unacceptable language to his riders, but I seriously doubt that he dropped Jess Varnish on anything other than performance grounds. This is a man who may have acted in a way that was unacceptably offensive, but most sane people would agree that he was single-mindedly focused on winning medals. Varnish seems to believe that he acted in bad faith. I suspect that this is her illusory superiority rather than Sutton’s supposed prejudice.

I remember talking to David Beckham about when he was out of favour at Real Madrid under Fabio Capello. Many felt that the Italian had made a mistake by dropping the midfielder, and it would have been easy for Beckham to have regarded the decision as prejudicial. He was wealthy, famous, popular, and could have coasted through his remaining months at the Spanish club before joining Los Angeles Galaxy. In extremis, he might have had a slanging match with his coach.

Instead, he forced himself to accept that Capello was doing what he thought was the best for the team, which was the first step in trying to convince the coach to change his mind. “I knew that Fabio wanted the club to do well, and that the best way to get back into the team was working harder, showing my stuff on the training pitch, giving it everything,” Beckham said.
A few weeks later, Capello, an arch rationalist, performed an about-turn. “I started to see that he was working hard and this week he has trained perfectly,” the coach said. “He was better than good. He has behaved like a great professional . . . the only thing that has influenced my decision is the work that Beckham has put in. This is not about the players saying they want him back in the squad and nor do I think that my decision to recall him undermines my authority.”

When it comes to Ashton, doesn’t the same analysis apply? If I had been in Jones’s position, I would probably have given Ashton the nod for the tour to Australia, but I certainly don’t think that the head coach acted unreasonably. And that is why Ashton should have seized his moment with the Saxons. Jones is clearly an admirer, given that he gave Ashton a place in his RBS Six Nations Championship squad. By accepting his place on the Saxons tour, the 29-year-old would have demonstrated commitment and could have mentored the younger players. He might even have enjoyed it.

The phenomenon of illusory superiority is not, by any means, all bad. When we rate ourselves highly, we tend to become more positive, optimistic and resilient, as Martin Seligman, the psychologist, has noted. But when we are overlooked, it can lead to a sense of injustice that can be destructive. Every now and again, isn’t it worth accepting that we failed to make the cut, not because the boss or selector is a raving lunatic, but because we were not good enough? This means that, instead of stewing or, worse, quitting, we find new ways to improve.