Prisoners have higher self-esteem than community members

prison bars jail
Credit: Jan Vargas, Flickr

The “better than average” effect applies to everyone, whether you are the smartest, most sensitive or just plain magical being. But new research has found that being locked up for horrible crimes does nothing to change that perception.

In fact, it enhances it with prisoners believing they have more “pro-social” characteristics than people on the outside, says author Constantine Sedikides, professor at the University of Southampton, UK.

Metro: How are prisoners thinking differently?

Sedikides: It has been long believed that criminals may suffer from low self-esteem. Recent waves of research indicate the opposite. Criminals and prisoners have higher levels of self-esteem, and indeed narcissism, than community members.

We know from past research that the higher one’s self-esteem or narcissism is, the higher will be the better-than-average effect. So I would surmise that prisoners likely exhibit an even stronger better-than-average effect than non-prisoners. This is a hypothesis to be rigorously evaluated by future research.

Could delusion be responsible for their crimes?

Perhaps illusions of superiority constitute one reason for prisoners’ overconfidence about not re-offending. Prisoners’ predictions of re-offending are generally inaccurate, as official data shows that approximately half of them re-offend within a year of release from prison. Perhaps a reason for their inaccurate predictions is their overconfidence. Feeling good about themselves relative to others (prisoners or community members) may bias their judgments toward believing that they could stay out of trouble when released from prison.

So we should try to convince them they’re not that great?

Prison-based interventions, which rely on efforts to enhance thinking skills, already aim to challenge misconceptions that offenders may have about their offence and the impact their behavior has had on society. However, prisoners also need to be encouraged to explore the reality of life after release from prison, while also being offered support to overcome the barriers that can prevent a successful reintegration into the community.



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