Despite the numerical impossibility, the average Brown undergraduate is self-proclaimed to be above average — as far as looks go, at least — according to last month's Herald poll. Over 72 percent of surveyed students classified themselves as somewhat or very physically attractive in relation to their peers, compared to just over 10 percent who said they were somewhat or very unattractive in comparison. These results were statistically similar across class years and genders.
"This is not a freak result. This is a very typical result," said Professor of Psychology Joachim Krueger. "Almost anything you ask people to rate themselves on, you get this kind of distribution, where most people think they are somewhat above average."
The human tendency to overestimate one's positive attributes is so well-known among psychologists and sociologists that it has several names. One of them, Krueger said, is the Lake Wobegon effect — referring to a town in the radio show "A Prairie Home Companion" called Lake Wobegon, where "all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average."
Such a community is, of course, fictional. After all, how could the average Brown student be better looking than the average Brown student? "They can't all be more attractive than the others. That's just not possible," Krueger said.
Nevertheless, the widespread phenomenon in which the majority claims above-average abilities, also known as the self-enhancement effect, has been observed repeatedly in psychology experiments. For example, "over 90 percent of college professors think they're better than the average college professor," said Mark Alicke, a psychology professor at Ohio University, whose research focuses on self-conceptions and social judgments. This is especially true when subjects evaluate themselves based on criteria that are hard to quantify, such as sociability, he added.
Michael Perchonok '12 said he intuited the results of the Herald poll's question because "people always want to think they're more attractive than they are." A myth that Brown lacks attractive students may have "set the bar lower" and caused individual respondents to feel better-looking in comparison, he added.
Dana Eldridge '10 said the results made sense to her as well, but for the opposite reason. "Brown students have this conception of themselves as a very attractive, very fashionable campus," she said.
There are a few exceptions to the self-enhancement effect, Krueger said. People rate themselves as below average on skills that are difficult and objectively testable, such as computer programming or juggling, he said.
In addition, adults over the age of 50 show less of a self-enhancement effect when considering characteristics like attractiveness and health status, Alicke added.
Though this phenomenon is evident in the Herald poll "at the group level," Krueger said that attributing an individual's self-rating to the Lake Wobegon effect is valid only if others also have rated this person.
"Let's say there's a true number. Somehow, God has spoken (or) Simon Cowell and a panel of four" have made a decision, he said. "Self-enhancement would be if the rating of myself is higher than my true rating." Though this is the general pattern, he said, some people view themselves as less attractive than others view them. Furthermore, there is no correlation between self-ratings and others' evaluations, he said.
Krueger said he was not surprised by the lack of gender difference in self-perception. "Some people speculate that women are more self-critical with their appearance," he said, but this idea comes from "worries I hear in folklore from individual people" rather than experimentally proven discrepancies.
"You might think stereotypically that males might be more egotistic than females," Alicke said, but these data show that, in some ways, "males are just as concerned about their physical appearance as females."
University Nutritionist Heather Bell wrote in an e-mail to The Herald that she would not have expected the relative uniformity across genders. "The historic gap between men and women's levels of body dissatisfaction is narrowing, but … I am surprised to hear that no gender differences at all were found," she wrote. Bell added that she was "delighted" that students seem to feel good about their appearances.
"I'm glad people here have such healthy self-esteem," said Sarah Denaci '12. "I would be sad if everyone thought they were below average."
But psychologists are not in agreement over the value of self-enhancement, according to Krueger.
"Is it better to have a realistic assessment of yourself or to overestimate yourself?" The answer, he said, probably lies somewhere in between the two poles. High confidence can amount to self-deception — for instance, in the case of attractiveness, "you can approach people who are really out of your league, and it can humiliate you," he said.
Still, overconfidence can be pragmatic, Alicke said. "If you knew exactly where you really stood, it might be discouraging, so people might give up," he said.
"You have to like yourself in order to keep going," said Adison Lax '11. "It's inherent narcissism, as part of self-preservation."
The Herald poll was conducted on March 22 and 23 and has a 3.5 percent margin of error with 95 percent confidence. A total of 714 Brown undergraduates completed the poll, which The Herald administered as a written questionnaire to students in the lobby of J. Walter Wilson during the day and in the Sciences Library at night.