Here are some sentences that will surely come across as biased: My wife is the prettiest woman in the world. My son is the smartest kid in school. My grandma makes the best chocolate cake ever.

Compare them to these sentences: My wife is not the ugliest woman in the world, but she's also not the prettiest. My son is not the dumbest kid in school, but he's also not the smartest. My grandma's chocolate cake is so-so; not horrible, but not great either.

For which set of statements would you say the person making them is more biased? I'm guessing the first one. But for which would you say that the person making the statements is more likeable? I'm guessing, also the first one.

In a set of studies I conducted with João Amaral, we documented this relationship between perceived bias and likeability. Participants perceived people who made flattering statements about their loved ones as biased but quite likeable, whereas people who did not praise their loved ones were perceived as unbiased but not at all likeable.

This relation between perceived bias and likeability only holds for people speaking of their loved ones, not people speaking of themselves. In one of our studies, participants read about similar flattering statements that people made about themselves ("I am the most beautiful person in the world") or about their loved ones ("My partner is the most beautiful person in the world"). Self-flattering statements were regarded as biased and dislikeable, whereas statements flattering others were regarded as equally biased but likeable.

Why do people dislike self-enhancement but like other-enhancement? If the person is self-enhancing, stating that she is smarter or more beautiful than most other people, then she comes across as conceited. Moreover, people hearing that statement might feel implicated in the comparison: "She might be stating she is smarter or more beautiful than I am". This is less likely when people hear someone making flattering statements about another person (other-enhancing), particularly a loved one. Those statements convey liking of the other person, which causes a favorable impression on observers.

Another interesting result in our studies was the distinction between bias and sincerity. Bias need not be seen as insincere. Indeed, participants reading about people who made flattering statements about their loved ones were able to distinguish between the truth of the statements in the eyes of the beholder ("they really think their partner is the most beautiful person in the world!") and the truth in the eyes of most other people, including their own ("their partner is quite likely not the most beautiful person in the world"). Flattering statements were regarded positively even though they were regarded as biased (not true in the eyes of other people), as long as they were regarded as sincere (true in the eyes of the person making the statement).

In fact, the less consensual the flattering statement was (for instance, when only the authors of the statements saw their loved ones in such a positive light), the more favorable it was regarded. The reason for this relates to consensus and attribution: If everyone thinks the person's partner is indeed beautiful, then the person's statement says little about them and more about the beautiful person ("this person must be really beautiful"). In contrast, assessments that are not consensual say more about the person making them ("this person must really like their partner").

This research suggests that there is more than perceived truth to what people say, and what they are judged for—there are also inferred feelings, values, and character traits. These perceived biases might tell us that a person's perceptions and beliefs about the world are distorted, but that their heart is in the right place.

For Further Reading

Mata, A., & Amaral, J. (2022). Desirable Biases: Self-enhancement is seen as biased and bad, other-enhancement is seen as biased but good. Social Cognition, 40(4), 317-335.

Hoorens, V., Pandelaere, M., Oldersma, F., & Sedikides, C. (2012). The hubris hypothesis: You can self‐enhance, but you'd better not show it. Journal of Personality, 80(5), 1237-1274.

André Mata is an Assistant Professor at the University of Lisbon. His research interests include social cognition, judgment and decision-making, motivated reasoning, and metacognition.