Why We're All Above Average
Feb. 14, 2012 -
Einstein's hair wasn't the only wild thing about him. The famous physicist also had numerous sexual liaisons during his two marriages. Einstein's first marriage was miserable. He and his wife, Mileva Marić, even formed a contract in which she became little more than a household servant, including the conditions set by Einstein that, “You will renounce all personal relations with me insofar as they are not completely necessary for social reasons ... . You will stop talking to me if I request it.” After the inevitable divorce, Einstein married his cousin, Elsa Lowenthal, whom he was already sleeping with. But his second marriage didn't keep Einstein in line either. Six girlfriends were mentioned in letters to his wife. At least he was honest about it.
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Erwin Schrödinger You may have heard of the theory of Shrödinger's cat , a hypothetical feline that may be either alive or dead depending on the random decay of a nuclear particle. It turns out Shrödinger was quite the Tom cat himself. The physicist got physical with numerous lovers. His wife, Anny, knew all about it. She had a lover of her own. The swinging scientist even went so far as to hire Arthur March as his lab assistant because he lusted after March's wife, Hilde. She bore Shrödinger a child, though she remained married to March. Shrödinger's two-woman harem eventually cost him an appointment at Oxford, since the idea of a polyamorous physicist was outside the cultural acceptability of the day.
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Richard Feynman Compared to other famous physicists, Feynman was more of a stereotypical number cruncher. He loved numbers so much that his second wife considered them his mistress. She wasn't as forgiving of Feynman's dalliances with sweet lady calculus as Einstein and Schrödinger's wives had been with their actual sexual escapades. She divorced Feynman, a master of quantum mechanics, because of his love affair with math. Feynman's first wife had died of tuberculosis in 1945. But the third time was the charm for him. He married Gweneth Howarth and lived happily ever after in the beach house he bought with his share of the Nobel Prize award that he won in 1965.
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Marie Curie Famous for her pioneering study of radiation, this star-crossed scientist's love life was just as conflicted, tragic and scandalous as the history of the energy she studied. Her husband, Frenchman Pierre Curie, slipped on a slick street in Paris during a storm and died after a horse drawn carriage crushed his skull. Heartbroken, Curie buried herself in her work to deal with her grief, until in 1910 she found solace in the arms a former student of Pierre's, Paul Langevin. But Langevin was a married man and five years her junior. The affair scandalized the French and fueled xenophobia against Curie, a native of Poland.
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Stephen Hawking On his 70th birthday, Stephen Hawking commented that, to him, women were a "complete mystery." No wonder, since his personal history sounds like what would happen if Jerry Springer hosted Nova. Hawking divorced Jane Wilde, his wife of 25 years, and married one of his nurses. His nurse, Elaine Mason, divorced her own husband, the man who had designed Hawking's iconic speaking machine, for Hawking. But some of Hawking's former nurses claimed Mason psychologically abused and mentally manipulated the wheelchair-bound genius. In 2006, Hawking broke free of Mason and began to mend fences with his children from his first marriage.
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Alfred Charles Kinsey A sexologist with torrid tales surrounding their research...who'da thunkit? Kinsey faced allegations that he conducted his research on human sexuality to fulfill a personal kink, but was also praised for making sex a legitimate topic of discussion and bringing the study of homosexuality out of the closet. Sure, in the privacy of his attic Kinsey filmed some of his own sexual behavior with his fellow researchers. And he encouraged his staff to engage in amorous experimentation in order to gain the confidence of research subjects and more fully understand the topic they were studying. But Kinsey's work also helped to make one of the most basic aspects of human biology a respected area of study. The groundbreaking Kinsey reports accompanied the United States into the sexual liberation of the 1960s.
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On a scale of one to 10, you probably think you're a seven. And you wouldn't be alone.
While it's impossible for most people to be above average for a specific quality, people think they are better than most people in many arenas, from charitable behavior to work performance.
The phenomenon, known as illusory superiority, is so stubbornly persistent that psychologists would be surprised if it didn't show up in their studies, said David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell who has studied the effect for decades.
It happens for many reasons: Others are too polite to say what they really think, incompetent people lack the skills to assess their abilities accurately, and such self-delusions can actually protect people's mental health, Dunning told LiveScience.
Since psychological studies first began, people have given themselves top marks for most positive traits. While most people do well at assessing others, they are wildly positive about their own abilities, Dunning said.
That's because we realize the external traits and circumstances that guide other people's actions, "but when it comes to us, we think it's all about our intention, our effort, our desire, our agency — we think we sort of float above all these kinds of constraints," he said. [10 Things You Didn't Know About You]
In studies, most people overestimate their IQ. For instance, in a classic 1977 study, 94 percent of professors rated themselves above average relative to their peers. In another study, 32 percent of the employees of a software company said they performed better than 19 out of 20 of their colleagues. And Dunning has found that people overestimate how charitable they'll be in future donation drives, but accurately guess their peers' donations.
Drivers consistently rate themselves as better than average — even when a test of their hazard perception reveals them to be below par, said Mark Horswill, a psychologist at the University of Queensland in Australia.
"You find it across all ages, you find it among novice drivers, and you find it among drivers over age 65," Horswill told LiveScience.
Because even the worst driver may by chance avoid an accident, people are more likely to overestimate skills like that than concrete skills like chess or tennis, where the incompetent are trounced quickly, Horswill said.
Room for delusion
In part, most positive traits — like being a good driver — are so vaguely defined that there's plenty of wiggle room to make them fit, Dunning said. People also don't usually get honest feedback from others.
"People don't say to your face what they might say behind your back," Dunning said.
But in a strange twist, the most incompetent are also the most likely to overestimate their skills, while the ace performers are more likely to underrate themselves, because if they find a skill easy they assume other people do too, he said.
One group seems to be immune to such self-aggrandizement: People who are depressed or have anxiety don't overrate themselves, Horswill said. The more severe the depression, the more likely they are to underrate themselves. That suggests the illusion of superiority may actually be a protective mechanism that shields our self-esteem, he added.
"You think you're better than everyone else and that's actually good for mental health," Horswill said.
And the trend varies considerably with culture.
"North Americans seem to be the kings and queens of overestimation. If you go to places like Japan, Korea or China, this whole phenomenon evaporates," Dunning said.
That is possibly because Eastern cultures value self-improvement, while Western culture tends to value self-esteem, he said.
Finding the truth
While it's not possible to get a completely clear-eyed view of oneself, people can bring their self-perception more in line with reality, Dunning said.
For one, people should look to others whose lives inspire admiration, figure out what they're doing right, and try to emulate them, he said.
And since people are generally pretty accurate in assessing other people (just not themselves), people should be aggressive about getting — and taking to heart — constructive criticism from others, he said.
"The road to self-insight runs through other people," he said.
This article originally appeared on LiveScience.com.
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