In a series of studies, Epley and Whitchurch showed that we see ourselves as better looking than we actually are. The researchers took pictures of study participants and, using a computerized procedure, produced more attractive and less attractive versions of those pictures. Participants were told that they would be presented with a series of images including their original picture and images modified from that picture. They were then asked to identify the unmodified picture. They tended to select an attractively enhanced one.
Epley and Whitchurch showed that people display this bias for themselves but not for strangers. The same morphing procedure was applied to a picture of a stranger, whom the study participant met three weeks earlier during an unrelated study. Participants tended to select the unmodified picture of the stranger.
People tend to say that an attractively enhanced picture is their own, but Epley and Whitchurch wanted to be sure that people truly believe what they say. People recognize objects more quickly when those objects match their mental representations. Therefore, if people truly believe that an attractively enhanced picture is their own, they should recognize that picture more quickly, which is exactly what the researchers found.
Inflated perceptions of one’s physical appearance is a manifestation of a general phenomenon psychologists call “self-enhancement.” Researchers have shown that people overestimate the likelihood that they would engage in a desirable behavior, but are remarkably accurate when predicting the behavior of a stranger. For example, people overestimate the amount of money they would donate to charity while accurately predicting others’ donations. Similarly, people overestimate their likelihood to vote in an upcoming presidential election, while accurately predicting others’ likelihood to vote.