Egocentric bias: why we feel like the main character in our own movie

Do you have a burning memory of an embarrassing experience that happened to you, and can’t help but think that everyone who was present must still laugh about it to this day? Chances are, most of them don’t even remember any of it. Similarly, have you noticed how we tend to overestimate the amount of work we ourselves contributed to a team project? In both cases, it is the egocentric bias at play.

“In a way, we’re all a little like paranoids, who experience everything that goes on around them as having to do with themselves. To a lesser degree, everyone tends to see events as more centered on themselves than is actually the case. People experience life through a self-centered filter.” — Anthony Greenwald, Psychologist.

The egocentric bias is a common cognitive bias that causes us to rely too much on our own perspective when considering events, ideas, and beliefs. It can make it harder to understand other people’s perspectives, and can cloud our judgement when making decisions. Why do we fall prey to the egocentric bias, and how can we mitigate its effects?

Why we focus on our own perspective

The term “egocentric bias” was first coined in 1980 by psychologist Anthony Greenwald, who described it as a phenomenon in which people skew their memories and beliefs through self-reference—we basically tend to exaggerate our role in a situation.

Egocentric Bias - Seeing the world through our own perspective

As Daniel Goleman explains: “Psychologists are discovering that the personal bias with which people perceive the world is far more extensive than had been thought. Although it has long been understood that egocentricity in some individuals results in a distorted view of reality, research suggests that a somewhat skewed view of reality is a virtually universal trait and that it affects each person’s life far more significantly than had been realized.”

In 1993, researchers conducted a study in Japan, where they asked participants to write down fair and unfair behaviours from themselves and others. The researchers found that participants tended to start statements with “I” when writing about fair behaviours, and “others” when writing about unfair behaviours, and vice and versa.

The study suggests that we tend to attribute positive behaviours to ourselves, and negative behaviours to others. In other words, surely we must be responsible for successful outcomes, and others are to blame for failures!

Why is this cognitive bias so prevalent? The first explanation is pretty obvious. Since we have direct access to our own thoughts and emotions, and not the ones of others, we are inclined to be more aware of our own behaviours, which may lead to only considering events from our own perspective.

Another explanation makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. By storing our memories in an egocentric manner, our own role is magnified, and the experiences become more personally relevant—and easier to recall. It may also explain why early childhood memories are more difficult to recall: since our sense of self is less developed at a young age, old memories do not connect as strongly to ourselves and may be categorised as less relevant as newer ones.

While there are valid explanations for the egocentric bias, it can lead us to misinterpret situations, incorrectly recall events, and make poor judgements. How can we deal with this extremely common cognitive bias?

Four ways to mitigate the egocentric bias

From awareness to debiasing techniques, there are several ways you can ensure the egocentric bias does not have too much of a negative impact on your work and life. Use these four strategies to protect yourself from its worst effects.

  1. Develop your awareness of the egocentric bias. By reading this article, you already took the first, essential step in mitigating the effects of this cognitive bias. Not only will this help you personally, but it will help you understand why people act in a certain way. By remembering that everyone feels like the main character in their own movie, you will be able to put yourself in other people’s shoes, which will result in better communication and collaboration.
  2. Explore alternative viewpoints. Changing your perspective to consider the one of others has been found to help with reducing the effects of the egocentric bias. You can try to picture a situation from the perspective of the other person, or even seek counterarguments to your current viewpoint. It’s even better if you can get the actual perspective of the other person, rather than imagine what they may be thinking or feeling.
  3. Apply self-distancing language. Increase your psychological distance with your own thoughts and emotions by changing the pronouns you use when describing a situation. In my case, I could ask: “How did Anne-Laure perform on this project?” or “How fair was Anne-Laure’s reaction in these circumstances?” By shifting from the first to the third person, you will get closer to other people’s perspective.
  4. Ask for feedback. Instead of solely relying on your own perception of a situation, proactively ask for external input. Let your colleagues, friends, and family tell you how they think you are doing, how much you are contributing, and how fair your behaviour is. Constructive criticism, when received well, is a powerful tool for personal growth. Make sure you understand the feedback and to reflect on it.

It’s thought to be impossible to completely get rid of the egocentric bias. After all, we spend a lot of time in our head, and it’s only natural we will tend to see the world through our own perspective. The egocentric bias also has many evolutionary advantages. But it can cloud our judgement. Being aware of its existence and using debiasing techniques such as seeking alternative viewpoints, using self-distancing language, and asking for feedback can help in alleviating some of its most negative effects.

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