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Posted 02/15/2021 in Category 1

How can we judge how good we are in sport? Are we better-than-average?

How can we judge how good we are in sport? Are we better-than-average?

In psychology, there is an effect called the better-than-average effect. The better-than-average-effect (BTAE) is the tendency for people to perceive their abilities, attributes, and personality traits superior to their average peer. By definition, of all the people in a population half are above average and half are below average, so why do we as humans think we are above average? We see this effect in many areas of our lives and in sport too.

There are several explanations for this better-than-average-effect and we shall explore two of them next. We shall see how critical is can be for one to believe one is better-than-average. To begin, social comparison theories suggest that people consider their standing compared with their peers during self-evaluation, especially we one cannot measure a trait objectively. Who is the average person? Who is the average golfer? Who is the average swimmer? These questions are tough to answer without some objective data. In the absence of this objective data, we have a choice. I could compare myself as a swimmer with Michael Phelps (an upward comparison with a superior swimmer) or with my friend Jamie, who only knows one swimming stroke (a downward comparison with an inferior swimmer). A recent study that joined the results of many studies together found that people more often choose upward rather than downward comparison standards when they appraise themselves. When we examine whether people compare themselves with their peers, we see the role of the better-than-average-effect. 

We fall into a trap when we examine knowing ourselves. Self-evaluations include error and bias. We can easily test whether people’s judgements about themselves are accurate when they take a test. We could test someone’s running speed, lap times, handicap in golf, performance on standardised tests and so on. When people are examined in various domains (e.g., sport, medical skills, intelligence), we know that their own evaluations and their performance have a moderate relationship. So what’s going on here? Do we think we are much better than we are? Mostly, it’s helpful to think that we are better than average; however, in sport this effect can be a double-edged sword. Thinking we are better than average helps us to prepare and compete with confidence, but it can easily undermine this confidence when we do not perform to the standard we felt was within our grasp. In driving ability for example, most people believe they are better than average but we do not objectively compare ourselves in driving ability unless we are competing in road rallying, for example.     

Sport is one domain with many ways to compare oneself. You can look at leader boards, personal bests, world records, Olympic records and so on. You can compare upwards or downwards and in the absence of objective data, you are free to think well of yourself. –Perhaps we need this assumption that we are better than average to make our way in the world – to keep striving to match the image we hold of ourselves in our own minds (self-expectancy theory). We can compare upwards and strive for a faster time, a higher score, a personal best. We know that as human beings we feel better-than-average even though we might not always wish to admit this belief in public. The next time you hear someone talking about humility and showing humility, you know that deep inside their mind they might hide the better-than-average effect. 


Zell, E., Strickhouser, J.E., Sedikides, C. & Alicke, M.D. 2020, "The better-than-average effect in comparative self-evaluation: A comprehensive review and meta-analysis", Psychological Bulletin, 146, no. 2, pp. 118-149.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay