Self-illusions come back to bite students

Looking at oneself through rose-colored glasses is a bit like having an unquenchable sweet tooth. Indulgence feels good in the short run, but a steady diet of either self-illusions or desserts eventually takes a toll.

That, at least, is the implication of a new study of college students, some of whom began school with an inflated regard for their own academic ability. Freshmen holding such intellectual self-illusions feel confident and happy for a while, according to the report in the February Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. As they move toward graduation, though, such strongly self-enhancing students feel progressively worse about themselves and become less involved with their schoolwork.

Four years after entering college, self-enhancing students had done no better academically and were no more likely to graduate than realistic or self-denigrating peers were, report psychologists Richard W. Robins of the University of California, Davis and Jennifer S. Beer of the University of California, Berkeley.

“It may be that self-enhancers engage in important life tasks as long as they’re able to perform at a level that doesn’t threaten their self-view but then [emotionally] disengage when they don’t live up to their expectations,” Robins suggests.

Earlier research on positive illusions had proven controversial (SN: 10/29/94, p. 280). A moderately exaggerated view of one’s coping skills and prospects helps people with serious physical illnesses adjust to their predicament, according to one body of work.

In academics, however, long-term costs of positive illusions outweigh their short-run benefits, Robins and Beer say.

They first studied 360 college students who formed five-person teams that worked on a group decision-making task. Each person then ranked the contributions of everyone in his or her group and answered other written questions.

About one-third of the volunteers greatly overestimated their performance relative to peer rankings. Most of the rest ranked themselves fairly accurately, although nearly 1 in 10 markedly underestimated their contributions.

Only self-enhancers reported feeling much happier after the task. They also scored much higher than their peers on narcissism, a measure combining self-importance, hostility, and condescension. Self-enhancers cited a strong need to perform well on the task and attributed their performance only to personal ability, not others’ help. Although self-enhancers usually realized they thought better of themselves than their peers did, they dismissed others’ opinions as inaccurate.

In a second study by Robins and Beer, narcissism and short-term well-being also accompanied self-enhancement. Interviewers contacted 508 undergraduates, most of them annually from freshman to senior years. Self-enhancers, who expected to get much higher college grades than justified by their high school grades and test scores, reported declining self-esteem and interest in school with each passing year.

Such results don’t discount evidence that a moderate level of self-enhancement is useful, especially in motivating people to achieve goals, remarks psychologist Shelley E. Taylor of the University of California, Los Angeles. Taylor has found such benefits for individuals with positive illusions.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.