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January 4, 2011

Everybody’s Above Average

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If you think you need to make a new year's resolution to better yourself, odds are you're right. As this ScienCentral News video explains, psychologists who study how we rate ourselves say we consistently over-rate ourselves.

Average is Good

How smart are you? Are you an excellent driver? Odds are you think you're above average, but, odds are, you're not.

Cornell University psychology professor David Dunning not only studies how we assess our abilities, he witnesses it every finals week. As students leave the exam hall most think, "I think actually I did above average," or even "I think I did pretty well."

"Everybody thinks they're above average. Obviously not everybody can be above average. Somebody has to be below average," Dunning says.

Dunning has conducted numerous studies of people's ability to assess their abilities. He found the great majority of us overrate ourselves at every task you can think of, from sports to driving to academic achievement.

"If you ask people, for example, how they compare against everybody else, like how disciplined are they, they say they're more disciplined than the average person… the average person says they're more idealistic, ethical, moral, giving," he explains. "A typical American says they're less likely to get the flu than everybody else, and these things just can't be. We can't be more invulnerable than other people on average, we just can't be."

And as he and others wrote in Scientific American Mind, the poorest performers are also the poorest at self-evaluation. For example, the bottom 25 percent of students tend to think they're doing better that 65 percent of the class.

"People who are doing really badly, they're performing really poorly, tend to think that they're doing quite well," he says. "Which is really interesting because if you ask them to predict how other people will behave in general they're largely accurate. They actually get other people in general right more or less but they really get themselves wrong dramatically."

On the other hand, the select few students at the top of the class who are doing as well as they predict, tend overrate the abilities of their classmates. "They're rather accurate at knowing how they've done," he explains. "But because the test is so easy for them, they think it's easy for everybody… they're often surprised at how poorly other students do, they had no idea."

Dunning says his studies have uncovered no gender or age differences in our incompetence in the area of assessing our competence, except one — scientific ability. Giving a group of male and female students a pop quiz about science, Dunning says he expected the women to think less of their science talent than the men in the study would. So, it wasn't surprising that at the end of the session when the researchers asked the group to estimate how well they'd done, the women underestimated how well they'd done, while the men didn't.

"But there was no difference in reality. They did equally well," he says. "But it mattered because also at the end of the session, we asked all our subjects whether they wanted to take part in a science jeopardy contest... for fun and prizes. And what we found was that the women in our study were less likely to volunteer and the only reason they were less likely to volunteer was because they thought they had done worse on that test they had just taken. No difference in performance, but a difference in perception and that difference in perception drove whether or not they wanted to do more science."

image: ABC News
"Our data suggests that these perceptions can drive what you're interested in doing in the future much more than your actual performance, the actual skill you're demonstrating," says Dunning.

Throughout their lives people will make thousands of decisions based their perception of their own skills, knowledge and moral character, he points out.

Dunning says many of our misperceptions are understandable because people tend to compliment us — at least to our faces.

"If you're a bad boss, people aren't necessarily going to tell you you're a bad boss. Because after all, you are the boss," he says.

But by only hearing good things about ourselves from other people we're left with a biased set of information about ourselves. "So, yeah, we're going to think we're wonderful, that's what the world has told us, that's what other people have told us," Dunning explains. "It's what our parents have told us, that's what our colleagues have told us. Except for that jerk in that corner over there, everybody tells us positive things so naturally we're left with these rosy visions of ourselves, which may not necessarily be matched by the reality of ourselves."

So has writing the book on self-insight improved Dunning's own self-insight?

"I don't think I'm any better at assessing myself, but I do respect the possibility that on some days I'm going to find out that what I think about myself is just flat wrong. And I think the way I approach life now is when those days happen I'm just not surprised anymore."Dunning suggests that one way to think about remedying misperceptions about yourself is actually to lean on other people. "Often the road to self-insight runs through other people, and that can happen a lot of different ways," he says. "So you can ask people directly for feedback about yourself. And one of the things I tell people is that if two people give you the exact same piece of negative feedback, to at least consider the possibility that it might be true."

Another way, he says, is just to compare how you handle situations with how other people handle the same kinds of situations. "You might see ways in which you can be doing better," he explains. "The key is, don't rely just on yourselves, don't remain in your own private world."

This work was featured in the December 2005 issue of Scientific American Mind, and "Self-Insight: Roadblocks and Detours on the Path to Knowing Thyself," David Dunning, Psychology Press, New York, 2005. Dunning's work was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.

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