Tales of a Recovering Poster Child
Self-Enhancement Bias and Why Normal Sucks
“And I think it's all right That I do what I like 'Cause that's the way I want to live It's how I give, and I'm still givin'” -”J.A.R.,” Green Day
I love Angus.
Join the Revolution
No, not beef (although I love a good steak.)1
Angus was a 1995 movie starring James Van Der Beek (i.e. Dawson Leery2) as an evil high school quarterback named Rick Sanford. Rick Sanford is not quite as evil as Sean Batemon in The Rules of Attraction3 (also played by Van Der Beek), but it’s a close second.4
I love Angus because of the story’s hero, Angus Bethune. Angus, seen below in a purple tuxedo, is labeled a “loser” by Rick for all of the stereotypical reasons high school movies tag someone as a loser. But in the penultimate scene, Angus makes the following speech:
Every time Angus says that “normal” people like Rick make others “terrified of being who they really are,” I get chills.
Do you know someone who never felt out of place?
I know, me either.
Yet weirdly, people often feel out of place because most communities have an externalized vision of what counts as “normal.” At various points in my life, I’ve been labeled as a “poster child” for the Jewish communities that I love. And honestly, it feels great, because it means that there is an alignment between something I think is important and how others see me.
But the desire to paint an image of a poster child has a cost.
Rick Sanford, it’s time for you to learn the self-enhancement bias.
Rick Sanford makes it easy to hate him; he parallels every archetypal high school movie villain, from Billy Zabka to Regina George. But in truth, we associate these characters with villainous perfection because all of us are conditioned to see certain traits as “normal.” And while no one person is responsible for this societal assumption, everyone implicitly tries to make themselves look better than they actually are to emulate this impossible standard.
Joachim Krueger identifies this desire as the “self-enhancement bias,” the tendency “to describe oneself more positively than the normative criteria would suggest.”5 Returning to the Dunning-Kruger effect, this is the same tendency that leads people to call themselves above-average drivers, teachers, fundraisers, public speakers, etc., even though it is statistically impossible for the majority to be above average.
Yet what I love about Krueger’s analysis is that he compares self-enhancement bias to a kind of illusion that impacts how we overrate ourselves and how we potentially overrate other people. In other words, “If the perception of the self as being above average is considered illusory, then the perception of another individual as being above average would also have to be considered illusory.”6 Yes, people are naturally inclined to assume that they are better than average. However, people are also inclined to see a certain external image as the ideal and thus might be equally likely to overrate others.
Consider how this tendency impacts how leaders in the Jewish Community implicitly associate certain biographies as “normal,” whether we know it or not. None of us choose the Jewish milieu into which we are born; as such, the impact of an individual person’s Jewish education, family structure, and childhood relationship to Jewish institutions was not in their control. As a result, when we project certain kinds of images as the “poster child” of some kind of Jewish “normal,” we are forgetting how much this ideal is a social creation.
As a rabbi, my True North is that every Jew should be inspired to care more about Judaism tomorrow than they did today. No one chooses their starting point; and if we recognize that important fact, maybe we will become less tempted to see certain biographies as “normal.”
Disability inclusion is a subject matter about which I know embarrassingly little; I have no reason for this that doesn’t sound like an excuse. That said, when I admittedly know nothing about the subject, I get curious and start to read; it doesn’t make me even close to an expert, but I start to know what I don’t know, and then want to learn some more. And Jonathan Mooney’s Normal Sucks: How to Live, Learn, and Thrive, Outside the Lines is a fantastic read about neurodiversity and learning. And to repeat the title, Mooney not only makes the case that normal sucks, but that normal is dangerous.
In a lexicographical history, Mooney writes that originally the word “normal” was originally used to discuss geometry, not people, specifically how “a line may be orthogonal, or normal, or it may not. Normal is an objective description of a line.”7 At first glance, by associating normal and math, one might conclude that “normal is describing a fact in the world.” However, Mooney asserts that today we use the word “normal” as “both a fact of the world and a judgment about what is right,” even if that’s not the original intent. A line may be “normal” in terms of its shape, but that does not mean that an “abnormal” line, is bad.
Yet today, Mooney argues that the “normal” we know today “was created, not discovered, by flawed, eccentric self-interested, racist, ableist, homophobic, sexist humans.”8 And many of those human helps give birth to pseudo-science that hurt millions of people and cost many of them their lives. The stakes of “normal” are higher than we could ever imagine.
Angus came out before Normal Sucks, yet ultimately I love both because they describe a similar diagnosis of the same disease. Mooney concludes with a call to action that all of us must “fight for the right of every person to be different, and even more forcefully when the differences being fought for are different from your own.”9
Scott Kaufman & Jonathan Mooney
“The only normal people are the people you don’t know very well.”
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The Nonprofit Email Report: Do you get too many fundraising emails? I do. But separating best practices from the blob of emails in our inbox asking us for money is difficult. I found this report about email fundraising strategy fantastic.
Four Ways to Avoid “Productivity Paranoia”: The MIT Sloan Management Review has a fantastic article on how cultivating trust between colleagues is the first step to avoiding a feeling that everyone must work themselves to death.
How To Think And Debate More Clearly: I hate terrible arguments. And nothing makes me more upset than people who disagree about something important and consequential, but use horrible arguments when trying to make a decision. Here’s a roadmap on how to avoid it.
When I go vegetarian, I make lamb…
I will go to my grave believing that Dawson and Joey should have ended up together…I never liked Pacey. Sorry.
Props to Yoni Warren, Holly Pollack, and Jay Marcus, who saw this movie with me at a movie theater near the University of Maryland, College Park (apologies if I forgot anyone). One of the strangest movies I’ve ever seen.
However, both characters have far better accents than when Van Der Beek plays Jonathan Moxon Varsity Blues:
But I totally get why Michael Scott thought it was a great motivational video…
The funniest part of the scene…Michael Scott kept Varsity Blues in his safe, where I keep the deed to my car and my children’s birth certificates.
Joachim Krueger, “Enhancement Bias in Descriptions of Self and Others,” in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Volume 24, Issue 5 (1998), 505.
Jonathan Mooney, Normal Sucks: How to Live, Learn, and Thrive, Outside the Lines (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2019), 25.