The great nanny state delusion

No-one is smart enough to tell others how to live.

In a survey undertaken in 2014, 55 per cent of Americans said they were smarter than the average American, 4 per cent thought they were less intelligent, while 34 per cent said that they were about as smart as the average American.

Those with higher levels of educational attainment were convinced they were smarter, with 75 per cent of college graduates and 83 per cent with post-graduate degrees claiming to be more intelligent. In fact, 51 per cent of the latter said they were “much more intelligent” than the average American.

I expect the same survey in Australia would yield comparable results; indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if the percentages claiming to be smarter than average were higher. I meet a lot of people who assume they are smarter than the average bear.

But clearly there is a problem. It is not possible for more than half a population to be above average (or more accurately, the median), and yet many people mistakenly believe they are. And if they have academic qualifications, they think they are well above average.

Psychologists describe this phenomenon as “illusory superiority”, in which a person overestimates his or her own qualities and abilities in relation to the same qualities and abilities of others. It is found in many aspects of life including school performance, popularity, driving skills and desirable personality traits (such as honesty, generosity or confidence). It explains a lot of stock market trading (each trader thinks they are the best and most likely to succeed) as well as the number of lawsuits that go to trial (because, due to illusory superiority, many lawyers have an inflated belief that they will win a case). It also explains criminals who assume they are too smart to be caught, and police who treat the public as if they are all stupid.

As Chair of the Senate nanny state inquiry last year, I was regularly asked why nanny state thinking is so prevalent. I found I could explain its history (it has origins in the temperance movement), why it is a problem (because it treats adults like children) and how pervasive it has become (there are endless examples). However, it was only when I considered it in the context of illusory superiority that I started to recognise its cause.

The nanny state is a product of illusory superiority. Policy makers and those with influence, convinced they are more intelligent than average, believe the people “out there” not only deserve the benefit of their intelligence, but should be obliged to cooperate for their own good.

Thus we have government policies on such things as bicycle helmets, lockouts, smoking, drinking, gambling and diet, where the law mandates certain behaviour. These policies are not intended to protect others, but to save us from ourselves.

When we look closely at the groups lobbying for nanny state policies, it is obvious. Without exception they are populated by people with academic qualifications, often post-graduate. Quite a few are located in or associated with universities, and many of their personnel are academics.

Among the most obvious are the Australian Health Promotion Association, the Public Health Association, the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, the obsessive individuals who dominate the anti-smoking lobby, and of course a couple of doctor groups which seem to think they have the answer to everything. In each case they are led by individuals with substantial academic qualifications.

On the other hand, I don’t believe I have ever heard a tradesman or trade organisation trying to tell me what’s good for me, despite probably knowing quite a bit about personal safety. Tradesmen, in my experience, rarely think they are smarter than average even when they are.

Such a refreshing attitude can be explained by an extension of the illusory superiority concept, called the “Downing” or “Dunning Kruger” effect. This refers to the tendency of people with below-average IQ to overestimate their IQ, and for people with above-average IQ to underestimate their IQ.

It seems to me that illusory superiority explains much about those who promote nanny state policies. The people who think we are incapable of behaving ourselves after 1.30am in Kings Cross, or of deciding when to wear a bicycle helmet, are very likely deluding themselves about their own intelligence.

This would all be easily solved by a dose of humility. Even if we are as smart as we think, that is no reason to try to tell others how to live. Nobody is that smart.

Originally published on July 13, 2017 by The Australian Financial Review