Can We All be Better than Everyone Else? Felons and the Presumption of Exceptionality

For years I worked in a juvenile detention center. According to the residents there–teens awaiting trial–there was always a shortage of good pencils, nice paper, decent food, blankets, kindness, privacy, but as far as I could tell, there was no shortage of self-confidence. Maybe it was a cover, but kids in jail often act like they run the world and deserve the best. Go figure. That’s why I was floored to read Tom Jacob’s article in the Pacific Standard Magazine: “Sure, I’m Behind Bars, But I’m Still Morally Superior to You,” which described a study done on convicted felons. Fascinating results:  Most felons thought they were better than the average person.

I guess psychologists have a term for that secret feeling we all have that tells us we are better than everyone else: the presumption of exceptionality. We all know it. That nagging feeling in the back of our mind that tells us we should have been the one to graduate first in class, score the winning touchdown, invent the iPhone, and write the great American novel.

The presumption of exceptionality says that most people, in general, tend to think they’re just a little bit better behaved, more moral, kinder, self-controlled, law-abiding, compassionate, generous, dependable, and honest than the average person. Sure, maybe we’re not Mother Theresa or Steve Jobs, but we’re at least better than this average guy, whomever he is.

The funny part is that this trait is so strong in us humanoids that even prisoners, yes, convicted felons, rated themselves morally superior to the average dude.

Perhaps it’s a protective instinct we all have. I mean, if I really had to come to terms with how short and plain I was, I would be truly depressed. Instead, I rank myself just slightly less attractive than Tom Cruise (he’s short, too).

According to Jacobs, “Maintaining a positive self-image seems to be a basic emotional need.” And it’s helpful. Positive self views help us gain the confidence we need to persevere when the going gets tough. But it also can hurt. We’re less likely to try to get better if we think we already are better than most.

How can we maintain both points of view, that we are awesome but also in need of improvement.  It’s a great exercise in complex thinking, diving into the gray, holding two thoughts at the same time.  Very zen.  Very Dead Zen.

GIVE UP trying to be better than you are.  You’re awesome.  AND yet remember there’s always time to grow before you DIE.

**It’s been a while since I’ve posted because we’ve been working on finishing the book, which is now available.

get living or die trying