The majority of Americans hold unrealistically positive views of themselves, believing they are much better than average on many attributes. Indeed, bigging it up (known technically as self-enhancement) may be necessary there. Americans who do it are less likely to be mentally ill – it may be adaptive to put others down and exaggerate your wonderfulness in such a competitive and aggressively dog-eat-dog society. Researchers in the US characterise those who have realistic appraisals of themselves as suffering from “depressive realism”.
Thankfully, this version of social reality is far from universal. In Japan and east Asia, far from living in a rose-tinted bubble of positive illusions, if anything you downplay your achievements. In Scandinavia, you cross the road to avoid seeming superior, aiming to level yourself with others. For instance, 46% of Americans estimate themselves to be among the top 20% most skilful drivers, whereas only 15% of Swedes do so.
This is not to say that citizens of these nations are cringing pushovers. They do self-enhance to competitors from beyond their social networks, such as business adversaries. Nor do they have diminished individuality.
Denmark is ranked the seventh most individualistic country in the world, above most other western European countries. Yet it also has the strongest tradition of modesty. Its Jante law says “don’t think you are better than anybody else”. Although widely derided by Danes as a joke, in practice they adhere to it strictly. It is a cultural prototype on a par with the American Dream.
In the Scandinavian welfare societies, equality of outcome is structurally enforced, most notably through substantial redistribution of income. Universities are not ranked against one another, but are assumed to be equal. Within schools, there are virtually no schemes for gifted children, but plenty aiding those who lag behind. They are strikingly less focused on achievement and materialistic goals than Americans.
A study of Danish and American undergraduates and adults showed Danes big it up considerably less than Americans – in fact, they go to great lengths to play down differences in ability. Yet they are also more independent-minded – for example, the undergraduates are more likely to think autonomously from their parents’ preferences.
The implication for us is that our children have been infected with an American strain of individualism. It advocates doing everything you can to make others feel inferior to you and to admire your superiority.
It’s healthy for toddlers and small children to see themselves as the centre of the universe. Aged six or seven, they may still not be able to realistically compare performance with others and may say things such as “I am the cleverest person in the world”. Alas, American culture encourages the endurance of a form of this infantile mindset.
The vaccine against it is British modesty and realism. Of course you should express pleasure at your children’s achievements. But you need to allow yourself not to feel guilty or old-fashioned if you use your intellect and authority to forcefully challenge any talk of other children being “losers”, and of arrogant and excessive self-regard.
Maybe your parents put you down in childhood or espoused a humiliating “pride comes before a fall” censure, against which you have reacted. But it must not inhibit you from bursting the bubble of false self-regard and vicious put-downs, which American values tend to envelop our children in.
Danish v American study: Thomsen, L et al, 2007, European Journal of Social Psychology, 37, pp445–469. More Oliver James atselfishcapitalist.com