The study carried out by psychologists from the University of Southampton has shown that prisoners believe themselves to have more pro-social characteristics — such as kindness, morality, self-control, and generosity —than non-prisoners.
The research also showed that prisoners did not rate themselves as more law-abiding than non-prisoners, but did rate themselves as equal.
The study, published in the British Journal Of Social Psychology, looked at the ‘better than average effect’, according to which people consistently evaluate themselves more favourably than the average peer on most trait characteristics.
Constantine Sedikides, professor of social and personality psychology, said: “These findings are some of the most compelling demonstrations of self-enhancement.
“If the prisoners self-enhanced by considering themselves superior to fellow inmates or community members on ‘macho’ traits, such as toughness, I would not be surprised.
“However, they self-enhanced on pro-social traits, on which they could demonstrably be inferior to others. That is, they were inferior on those traits to community members and were not necessarily superior to other prisoners. They ignored, to a large degree, reality.
“Virtually by definition, people who are incarcerated have shown a lack of respect for their peers and have violated a legal pact: To adhere to the laws of the community.
“Although non-incarcerated people do this also, it is highly likely that incarcerated people ‘cheat’ their fellow community members more than the non-incarcerated do. To evaluate themselves more favourably than the non-incarcerated on virtually every social characteristic stretches reality to the breaking point.”
During the study, 79 prisoners from a jail in southern England filled out a questionnaire, which asked them to rate themselves in comparison to the average prisoner and the average member of the community on nine traits: Moral, kind to others, trustworthy, honesty, dependable, compassionate, generous, self-controlled, and law-abiding.
A university spokesman said: “Participants rated themselves as superior to the average prisoner on all traits. Surprisingly, they rated themselves superior to the average community member on all traits as well, with one exception. Prisoners considered themselves as law-abiding as the average community member.”
Prof Sedikides added that the ‘better than average effect’ could have an impact on a prisoner’s common prediction that they are less likely to commit future crimes, when official data indicate that about half re-offend within a year of release from prison.