In Dove's "Real Beauty Sketches" ad, several women describe what they think they look like to an FBI-trained sketch artist, who can't see the women, and draws them based only on their descriptions. Then each woman chats with a benevolent stranger, who adoringly describes that same woman to the artist. The twist — okay, it's not really a twist — is that the second portrait, based on a stranger's description, is always more attractive than the one created from each woman describing herself.
Dramatic piano! Tears flow! You are your own worst enemy! #WeAreBeautiful!
It's a nice message. But sadly, it might not be entirely true. Scientific American reports that a new study finds that "most of us think that we are better than we actually are — not just physically, but in every way."
Psychologists Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago and Erin Whitchurch of the University of Virginia put together a slightly less feel-good experiment than the idealized setup in the Dove commercial above.
Participants were shown a cluster of images of themselves. One was original. The rest were digitally doctored. Some made the participant less attractive, while others made them more attractive. When asked to select the unmodified original, subjects tended to gravitate to one of the computer-enhanced images that made them look better.
It didn't stop there. A stranger who had met the participant a few weeks earlier was asked to select that person from the same set of portraits. Surprise: They tended to pick the unmodified, less-than-perfect original.
Why were the study's participants incapable of discerning what they really looked like? It turns out it's a phenomenon psychologists call "self-enhancement." It's a mechanism that basically ensures we feel good enough about ourselves to withstand life's everyday body blows. Scientific American writes:
Most people believe that they are above average, a statistical impossibility. The above average effects, as they are called, are common. For example, 93 percent of drivers rate themselves as better than the median driver. Of college professors, 94 percent say that they do above-average work. People are unrealistically optimistic about their own health risks compared with those of other people. For example, people think that they are less susceptible to the flu than others. Stock pickers think the stocks they buy are more likely to end up winners than those of the average investor. If you think that self-enhancement biases exist in other people and they do not apply to you, you are not alone. [Scientific American]
Whether self-enhancement is healthy or not is a matter of debate. The central thesis of a highly influential and controversial paper from 1988 concluded that "mental health status is positive correlated with self-enhancement" [PDF]. Basically, unrealistically positive self-evaluations were normal in healthy people.
Subsequent analysis, however, found the opposite to be true. A 1995 study concluded that "negative correlations between individuals' overall self-enhancement of their personality" led to more favorability among their peers [PDF]. In other words, people who didn't think the world of themselves were more motivated to present themselves to others in a more positive light. They were more likable, possibly because they weren't insufferable narcissists.
So what can we reasonably learn from this Debbie Downer of an experiment? Three proposed takeaways:
1. We're probably uglier than we think. But that's not a bad thing. Jessica Roy at BetaBeat nails it: "Dove's 'Real Beauty' videos assume physical attractiveness is the sole path to happiness." Which isn't true, of course.
2. Inflated self-perceptions are healthy, at least to an extent. Self-esteem is armor and life is a gantlet, which makes attention-thirsty selfies the sad, modern-day equivalent of the Roman turtle formation.
3. Dove is a multinational corporation. Its goal, above all else, is to sell you stuff.