How We Overestimate Our Abilities

first published on by Marina Zayats

We all have an opinion of ourselves, but in general do we have an inflated view of our own skills, or do we underestimate our ability to succeed?

We all notice it from time to time: the over confident intern who’s starting their placement without asking for any advice and making loads of mistakes, or the amateur investor who’s sure they can make a fortune on the stock exchange and loses their money faster than in if they were on the slot machines in Las Vegas.

People have the tendency to overestimate their abilities and knowledge no matter what subject area they feel comfortable with, an observation which is called the “Dunning Kruger Effect“. Where does this naive self-confidence come from? This question has occupied the career of Dr. David Dunning, a social psychologist and one of the two researchers who gave the above stated effect its name. Dunning addressed some of these self-inflation issues empirically in a series of studies in 1999, where he, and co-author Justin Kruger, PhD, examined the possible root of some self-overestimation.

Students at Cornell University received short tests in logic, humour and grammar and subsequently assessed how well they thought they did both individually, and in relation to fellow students. In all task fields, participants who showed the worst results strongly overestimated their performance compared to fellow students who did well. While one might think this finding has something to do with arrogance and false pride, according to Dunning it is most likely ignorance. “People overestimate themselves,” he says, “but more than that, they really seem to believe it. I’ve been trying to figure out where that certainty of belief comes from.” Not only are these inaccurate self-beliefs responsible for people’s overestimation also they are also to blame for people’s underestimations.

Dunning has also tested people’s self-evaluation in the moral area, and brought something to light that he describes as a “holier-than-thou” syndrome. In a series of experiments Dunning, and Nicholas Epley, PhD, an assistant professor at Harvard University, found that undergraduate students consistently overestimated the likelihood that they would behave generously or selflessly.

One of these experiments, uses a version of the common “prisoners’ dilemma“, in which participants have to choose between self-interest and cooperation. In this study, 84% of the students initially claimed they would cooperate with the other party, but only 61% actually did. In addition, students’ actual performance (61% cooperation) was in tune with their predictions of how other participants would act. This demonstrates that people tend to assess others more accurately than they assess themselves.

Dunning tries to give some answers to his observations:

Assessing ourselves factually isn’t always easy, or sometimes even possible

In a subjective area like intelligence, for instance, people are inclined to perceive their skills more generously in their own favour. Consequently, a student who is good at mathematics may emphasize analytical skills in their definition of intelligence, whilst a student highly involved in other areas may emphasize creativity. The same thing can apply to car driving skills. Most people (especially men, but this would be another research topic) are convinced they are good drivers. But what does that actually mean? Some might argue being a good driver implies that you have never been involved in a car accident, while others might say a good driver is able to park the car in a very tight parking space.

Accurate feedback is rare in many areas of our lives

A cure to inaccurate self-assessment is qualified feedback, Professor Dunning says. The problem is, people don’t like giving negative feedback. This is especially so in a non-professional environment where there is no chance business targets or profits will be detrimented. Telling somebody they are a lousy storyteller or a poor conversationalist would be unpleasant for both parties and so we often keep our opinion about another person to ourselves. Therefore, it’s very likely we won’t hear criticism that would help us improve our abilities.

Cross-cultural comparisons

Steven Heine, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, studied this phenomenon from a cultural perspective. His findings suggest that self-inflation is more often to be seen in Western societies than in any other.

Regardless of the question, generalised or not, Dunning’s findings are show that Americans have a tendency to inflate their worth in certain fields. Therefore, it is interesting to see the phenomenon in another culture. In a series of 70 studies comparing North American and East Asian self-evaluation, Steven Heine of the University of British Columbia finds that in 69 of the 70 studies East Asians tend to underestimate rather than overestimate their abilities. The focus lies therefore on self-improvement and getting along with others. In 2001, Heine took a closer look at these cultural differences giving Japanese and American participants a task at which they either failed or succeeded. Afterwards they were given another task and the results were very obvious: Japanese participants worked longer on the second task if they failed at the first one, while American participants worked longer if they succeeded at the first task.

Heine and his team explain these findings as follows: Since Western societies are more individualistic, a successful life has come to be equated with having high self-esteem. Overrating one’s sense of self creates positive emotions, and feelings of self-efficacy. The only problem is that people don’t like others who show-off and inflate their abilities.

Contrarily, people in East Asian societies maintain their “face” by self-improvement, or by showing a self-critical stance and by doing so enhance their reputation, and thus interpersonal network. Unfortunately, Heine says the cost is they don’t feel as good about themselves as their Western peers. He adds that because people in these cultures have different motivations, they make very different decisions. If people in Western societies perceive they’re not doing well at something, they tend to look for something else to do instead. They will likely think: If I’m bad at martial arts, then I shall stop and try something else. East Asians, on the other hand, regard a weak performance as an invitation to try harder and go further.

Whether you are overestimating or underestimating yourself, asking for honest and qualified feedback might help to bring your performance in line with your self-assessment and therefore create a consistent image of yourself.

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