Your ideal self: a positive guide

Writing this blog, I am entered in a competition for a research grant. Only the top ten percent can win and I recognise the odds that I don’t belong to the top. When feeling positive, I feel certain that I am part of the gifted few and happily continue writing my proposals. You could say that my ideal self deludes my actual self into spending a big chunk of my life on writing grants.

In this blog you’ll read why overly positive self-images may be a driving force in human development.

The ideal self

You may have heard that we tend to overestimate ourselves. We for instance rate ourselves as more attractive than others would do, and we recognise more attractive faces as our own face (-the same holds for our friends faces!). We call this a ‘self-serving bias.’

Nicholas Eply of the University of Chicago created ugly and beautiful versions of his participant’s faces by blending them with photographs off unattractive and attractive faces. Image taken from Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

This positive self-image may not be a simple delusion though. We especially tend to belief we could be better. If our job wasn’t so boring, we’d be more creative, if we’d find the right hairdresser our true beauty would reveal itself, if we’d meet the right teacher we’d become a professional dancer. In other words, humans have an image of who they are in the present: the actual self and an image of who they could be in the future: the ideal self. A great thing for marketing, but it is also a very cute human trait for other reasons.

The ideal self propels you into future ability

To come back to my favourite theme: what you do is determined by the prospect of reward. The world is full of potential rewards: applause, smiles from friends, money, food, whatever makes you tick. Only a few provide you the prospect of obtaining them: the ones you can achieve. This means that how you estimate your ability is very important in determining which activities you’ll undertake. When you slightly overestimate yourself, you’ll belief you can achieve things for which you have no evidence yet. It’ll let you engage in activities you otherwise wouldn’t take up.

Overestimating yourself too much will result in mental problems as you attribute repeated failure to a hostile world.


When you slightly overestimate yourself, you can develop yourself beyond the limits the present would suggest.

Because the world isn’t entirely predictable, there is always a chance of bigger progress than the present would suggest. It is impossible to fully predict your future ability. By slightly overestimating yourself you open the possibility of achieving more. I don’t understand why humans would want to go to Mars: there is so little evidence to find anything nice there. Yet, if we don’t try it, it is certain we don’t find any hidden treasures in outer space.

So feeling bad about your self-serving bias? Just use it to accomplish positive changes. Climate change, we can handle it, let’s act.

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