Seeing Oneself in a Positive Light
Is there a single explanation that can account for all of human behavior? Of course not. But, I think there is one that does darn well. Human beings are motivated to see themselves in a positive light. We want, and need, to see ourselves as good, worthwhile, capable people. And fulfilling this motive can come at the expense of our being "rational actors." The motive to see oneself in a positive light is powerful, pervasive, and automatic. It can blind us to truths that would otherwise be obvious. For example, while we can readily recognize who among our friends and neighbors are bad drivers, and who among us is occasionally sexist or racist, most of us are deluded about the quality of our own driving and about our own susceptibility to sexist or racist behavior.
The motive to see oneself in a positive light can have profound effects. The work of Claude Steele and others shows that this motive can lead children who underperform in school to decide that academics are unimportant and not worth the effort, a conclusion that protects self-esteem but at a heavy price for the individual and society. More generally, when people fail to achieve on a certain dimension, they often disidentify from it in order to preserve a positive sense of self. That response can come at the expense of meeting one's rational best interest. It can cause some to drop out of school (after deciding that there are better things to do than "be a nerd"), and it can cause others to ignore morbid obesity (after deciding that other things are more important than "being skinny").
Another serious consequence of this motive involves prejudice and discrimination. A wide array of experiments in social psychology have demonstrated how members of different ethnic groups, different races, and even different bunks at summer camp see their "own kind" as better and more deserving than "outsiders" who belong to other groups—a perception that leads not only to ingroup favoritism but also to blatant discrimination against members of other groups. And, people are especially likely to discriminate when their own self-esteem has been threatened. For example, one study found that college students were especially likely to discriminate against a Jewish job applicant after they themselves had suffered a blow to their self-esteem; notably, their self-esteem recovered fully after the discrimination.
The motive to see oneself in a positive light is so fundamental to human psychology that it is a hallmark of mental health. Shelley Taylor and others have noted that mentally healthy people are "deluded" by positive illusions of themselves (and depressed people are sometimes more "realistic"). But, how many of us truly believe that this motive drives us? It is difficult to spot in ourselves because it operates quickly and automatically, covering its tracks before we detect it. As soon as we miss a shot in tennis, it is almost instantaneous that we generate a self-serving thought about the sun having been in our eyes. The automatic nature of this motive is perhaps best captured by the fact that we unconsciously prefer things that start with the same letter as our first initial (so people named Paul are likely to prefer pizza more than people named Harry, whereas Harrys are more likely to prefer hamburgers). Herein, though, lies the rub. I know a Lee who hates lettuce, and a Wendy who will not eat wheat. Both of them are better at tennis than they realize, and both take responsibility for a bad serve. Simple and elegant explanations only go so far when it comes to the complex and messy problem of human behavior.