“In the field of social psychology, illusory superiority is a cognitive bias whereby a person overestimates their own qualities and abilities, in relation to the same qualities and abilities of other persons.”
The Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll is always fascinating. But one question was especially illuminating in this year’s survey. Farmers were asked, “Compared to other farm operations in your area, how well do you think your farm operation is performing in controlling soil erosion?”
Seventeen percent (17%) rated themselves far above average. Fifty-two percent – yes, that is 52% – rated themselves above average. Thirty percent (30%) rated themselves as average. One percent (1%) rated themselves below average, and absolutely no one (0%) rated themselves as far below average. Talk about an example of illusory superiority!
News flash, 69% of farmers cannot be above average, with 30% average, leaving only 1% below average. Of course, this is statistically impossible.
Answering another question, 63% of farmers rated themselves above average in controlling nutrient runoff/loss into waterways, with only 2% rating themselves below average. That means 35% of farmers rated themselves as average.
And we wonder why farmers are not implementing conservation. Really? Why would farmers implement more conservation when they already think they are doing a bang-up job? Let’s just clear the air. Most farmers have no idea how much soil or nutrients they are losing. It is hard, even impossible, to visually detect the amount of soil loss and nutrient loss.
For voluntary conservation to be successful, we MUST be serious about conservation planning. The first step in conservation planning is identifying the problems. Farmers need to know what levels of soil erosion they have; they need to know the level of nitrates leaching into the water below their fields.
Certainly, it is easy to say farmers should know how much they are losing and they should know how to reduce or prevent it. But show me a survey of farmers that leads anyone to believe this is true. We need to give farmers the information and then help/expect them to act on it.
This feeling of illusory superiority is not unique to farmers. According to a study published in a Swedish Psychology journal (Acta Psychologica) a whopping 93% of Americans consider themselves above average drivers. It is really annoying to me that 93% of Americans think they drive better than I do.
Tom, that is a great article. When I started reading I thought you were going to make a political statement!!!
Dave, thanks. I am glad you enjoyed the post. It is safe to say I will steer clear of politics if at all possible. Conservation seems to have enough controversary.
I see the point you are trying to make Tom, but I think it is important to point out that it is entirely possible, and maybe somewhat likely that 63% are above average. This is what we call skewed data. If the vast majority of total soil loss is coming from a few farms (which can be the case), then we would expect most farms to be better than average and few farms to be below or far below average. In fact, this is probably true from an erosion/soil loss/phosphorus perspective, but probably not true for nitrogen as we know the loss pathways are different and N loss tends to be more homogenous within a landscape.
Chris, the questionnaires were mailed to a statewide panel of 2,080 farmers. Completed surveys were received from 999 farmers, resulting in a response rate of 48% percent. I can ask Dr. Arbuckle for his opinion, but I seriously doubt it is skewed to that extent.
… were all the farmers are above average!
Working with Rural Sociologist Pete Nowak in grad school we reviewed research that showed farmers thought that farmland stewardship decreased the farther it was from their own land, county, state, etc.
You are correct, and this is the crux of the matter. Farmers do not know what is coming off their land; what they are losing. They need better tools and resources to do that.
Thanks for your excellent observations.
Karl, I think there are many surveys that show that farmers over estimate their level of effort with conservation. I agree we need to provide them with better information.
In addition to identifying problems on individual fields, farmers need to be able to monitor the impact of their actions. As the situation currently is with water quality, we’re all functioning in something of a black hole. So, we need reasonable and effective monitoring protocols for use on farms.
Hi Margaret, thank you for your comment. I agree farmers need to prove to themselves that these practices are working on their land and this is best done by before and after monitoring. As you know this is not always easy, affordable, and practical. Sometimes using an environmental, like RUSLE2, is the best we can do.
You are an above average blogger Tom!
But I’m just an average reader.
Thank you for the kind comment. It is definitely above average!
It could just be that 17% of farmers know how bad a job the average farmer does in in controlling erosion and nutrient loss, and think that they do an OK job which equates to doing a far above average job. If you set a low bar it doesn’t take much to far exceed it!
It is hard to set a bar, high or low, when there are no state standards.
We also perhaps need to encourage(?) urge(?) some farm groups not to keep promoting and pushing the illusion that most farmers are way-above-average land and water stewards. I skim farm journalism and see farm group PR efforts aimed at the general public. After years of doing so, the survey result described above does not surprise me at all.
And by no coincidence, the Iowa Farm Bureau just posted a story about their new poll that reportedly indicates that most Iowa grocery shoppers essentially believe farmers are doing a bang-up job of taking care of land and water. So yes, everything is hunky dory. No wonder the Iowa Legislature is poised to pass the Senate water bill, which, to put it politely, is a little short on deadlines, standards, goals, strategic planning, accountability, and serious purpose. And some might add, common sense.
Cindy, I can’t tell you how many meetings I have been to in the last year were ag organizations say, “we just need to do a better job of telling our story”. Really? News flash…telling a better story doesn’t improve soil and water quality. There are definitely farmers that need to tell a better story because they are really doing a great job. However the rest of the farmers need to skip the story and just need to do a better job of conservation. That being said we all are responsible for global climate change. Global climate change has definitely increased the runoff of soil and nutrients and therefore we all need to do our part financially. States need to invest more tax payer money in conservation.
Tom, I very much agree with what you are saying. As a taxpayer, I am ready and willing to help pay for better water, and I hope many other Iowa taxpayers are too. I know some who definitely are.
I also believe Iowans need and deserve an effective water bill that will provide good results for money. We need a bill that does not have the major deficiencies I listed earlier. Otherwise, Iowa will, metaphorically, be like the person who gets up on New Year’s Day, looks in the mirror, winces, and mutters, “Somehow or other, at some point, I am going to lose a lot of weight” and then goes away and doesn’t look in the mirror again for ten years. And ten years is the amount of time between water program review committee meetings in the Iowa Senate water bill.
Cindy, again thank you for your comments. Most non-ag people think that soil and water conservation are only ag issues. However these same people believe climate change is a real issue. I agree climate change is a real issue that cannot be over stated in its importance. But if we all cause climate change how can we saddle farmers with all the blame and all the costs. We all have a part in the costs.
I just recently read your comments on a recent grant to study soil health. Do you have a web site or more information on this group or its grant study? Interested in just what “standards” they are going to come up with when talking about “sustainability”.
It seems like we need practices that will apply to individual tracts of land and not use averages. I have seen ARS studies that suggest 30% of water quality issues come from 10% of the cropland. Is there a relationship from the old 1985 Farm Bill compliance standard of 1/3 of a tract of land or 50 acres; to be out of compliance, that needs to be reexamined with new research data on resource vulnerability?
Bill, good to hear from you. I believe you must be referring to the announcement from the Soil Health Partnership. Here is a link to their announcement: http://agwired.com/2017/12/19/soil-health-partnership-grows-program/
I absolutely agree we need practices and research that apply at the field level and not watershed, state, or regional averages. It only takes a few recommendations that fail, in conditions where these practices do not work, to set back an entire program. That is unfortunate but it is the way it is. And yes we have to target those areas that are causing disproportionate losses of sediment and nutrients if we are going to get the job done. We must target then we practices (precision conservation) that work on individual farms.
the respondents may be correct in their statements…for a couple of reasons.
1. is the comparison to their own neighbor, direct peer to peer, or are they in their mind comparing to some older T standard, that they are relatively sure than they are better at? I cannot tell without knowing what is behind the data.
They may believe they are better than average due to data. I have good 3rd party data sets that fore ‘here’ show reductions in nutrients applied, increases in nutrient use efficiency, and lower erosion over the past 30 years, yet we are told that the situation is getting worse…
If you had made continuous improvement for 30 years, you might view yourself as above average.
Lastly, as previously mentioned, this is a skewed data set…from the perspective that respondents have voluntarily responded to a survey; they are likely motivated for a given reason. If they feel that they have made improvement, it would not be surprising from a survey perspective that they feel they are above average. (however I am impressed with 48% response rate).
some thoughts for you to ponder. Thank you for posting
Bryon, interesting perspective