Why is everyone a worse driver than me? You're not alone, we tested it

Jun 20, 2024

We asked university students if they considered themselves good drivers— unsurprisingly, 97% of them agreed. However, only 48% of the students disagreed when we asked if their peers drive recklessly around the university campus. Something’s not adding up here, while nearly all surveyed students consider themselves good drivers, half believe other students drive recklessly. Where are these reckless drivers reflected in our study? In this article, we explore the probability of these results and discuss possible behavioral explanations for why everyone seems to be a bad driver except me.

Crunching the numbers

Was it by chance that all 380 students we surveyed just happened to be great drivers? This is almost statistically impossible.

The probability of surveying at least 11 bad drivers of 380 surveys, with the bold assumption that half of the drivers are reckless, is 2.16X10-94. This incredibly small number doesn’t tell us much by itself, we need to relate it to a known scenario.

To put it in perspective, the probability of winning the biggest prize of a standard lottery ticket, where you pick 6 numbers out of a pool of 49, is 1 in 13,983,816 which is around 7.15X10-8. This means that it is more likely to win the biggest prize of a lottery 13 times back-to-back than to get the results from our study. We are really stretching the meaning of “almost statistically impossible.”

Granted, we are assuming that the surveys were asked randomly to a population of 50% bad drivers, which might not be completely accurate. Even if we assume the bad driver population to be 33%, you would still have to win the lottery 7 times in a row to match the odds of our results. So, it is safe to say that our survey wasn’t influenced by mere chance.

Behavioral bias while driving

Multiple biases can lead to the phenomenon of perceiving other people's driving skills as inferior to ours. Either elevating our perceived level of skill or remarking on the perceived lack of driving skills from others. The objective of the study was not to inquire further about this behavior, however, we can assume that the following factors have a major influence on such beliefs:

Above-Average Effect

The above-average effect is a bias that causes individuals to overestimate their own abilities relative to others, especially in areas that are subjective or not easily measurable.

This bias contributes to the idea that our driving skills will be above that of the average driver, particularly since it isn’t easy to measure. A not-so-fun thought experiment you can do is to think about all the activities you execute in your daily life like cooking, parenting, household chores, etc. Exclude the activities that you have been preselected to do like your job. We likely think of ourselves to be above average in most of them. However, this is statistically unlikely. Half of the population is below average at any given activity. The more activities you think of, the less likely it is that you are above average in all of them. This exercise can help highlight the cognitive bias that skews our self-assessment.

Self-Serving Bias

The self-serving bias is the tendency to attribute positive events and successes to our own character or actions but blame negative results on external factors unrelated to our character. This can be translated to when we find ourselves in a tricky situation behind the wheel, we often attribute the wrongdoing to the other driver, a pedestrian, the road, or even our own car’s limitations before taking the blame. The classic  “you were in my blind spot” excuse when we attempt a risky merge falls within this category.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias describes our underlying tendency to notice, focus on, and give greater credence to evidence that fits with our existing beliefs. So, If we start with the belief that everyone else is a worse driver than we are, we will use every instance of reckless driving as evidence to confirm our belief. However, we tend to ignore or overlook when others are driving decently (which is the majority of the time). This selective attention reinforces our belief, even though it doesn't reflect the overall reality.

Response & Social Desirability Bias

Response bias refers to our tendency to provide inaccurate, or even false, answers to self-report questions, such as those asked on surveys or in structured interviews, often, to conform to what we believe the experimenter wants to hear.

Social Desirability bias is when we answer sensitive questions not with the truth, but with a response that conforms to societal norms. Students might report being good drivers to align with social norms or expectations, even if they are aware of their driving flaws.

To limit this effect, we make clear that all answers are anonymous and no repercussions will come from how they answer the survey. We also asked if they are more likely to stop at a pedestrian crosswalk if they are driving with a passenger, and 50% of the self-declared good drivers agreed.

This finding tells us two things.

1) Students are not simply declaring themselves as perfect drivers, since having company shouldn’t change someone's driving behavior.

2) The impact social desirability has on our driving is significant since we hardly want our passengers to think poorly of our skills.

Behavioral Science, Democratized

We make 35,000 decisions each day, often in environments that aren’t conducive to making sound choices.

At TDL, we work with organizations in the public and private sectors—from new startups, to governments, to established players like the Gates Foundation—to debias decision-making and create better outcomes for everyone.

Parking the Myths

Many biases influence the perception of ourselves and others, and we didn’t cover them all here. But, now you know you are not alone in thinking you are surrounded by incompetent drivers and you can become aware of the potential biases that might be triggering such beliefs.

In this article, we’ve aimed to make sense of what seems to be an impossible result by deconstructing the behaviors we tend to follow. Now that you are aware of these biases, you might want to look at our full list and pinpoint those that influence your daily life while going unnoticed.

Jerónimo Kanahuati

Jero is a Consultant at The Decision Lab with a passion for artificial intelligence and behavioral science. Prior to joining The Decision Lab he founded a startup in Mexico to develop apps for kids to encourage education, and developing web scraping bots. He also worked at Google as an account manager and technical specialist focused on ad placement across Google's products. Jero has a bachelor's degree in engineering and a postgraduate specialty degree in operations from Universidad Panamericana in Mexico City.