How good at you at chopping vegetables? Are you above average at friendship? What about dancing? How about surviving a zombie apocalypse?
Make two lists titled “My 10 Best Skills” and “My 10 Worst Skills.”
Keep in mind, they can be skills needed for things you have actually done before, like chopping onions, or based on imaginary scenarios, like your potential skill at saving humanity from flesh-eating zombies.
Afterward, next to each skill, write whether you think you are better, worse or the same as most others at that task.
Finally, take a moment to reflect on the activity. What do you notice about your lists? Which kinds of skills do you see yourself as better at than other people? Which do you believe yourself to be weaker at than most? On the whole, do you think you tend to overrate your abilities or underplay them?
In “You Are Not as Good at Kissing as You Think. But You Are Better at Dancing,” Spencer Greenberg and Seth Stephens-Davidowitz write:
Do you think you are an above-average driver, as most people do? How do you compare with others as a parent? Are you better than most at dancing? Where do you rank in your capability to save humanity?
Many of you will answer these questions incorrectly. For some of these skills, you will think you are better than you actually are. For others, you will think you are worse.
We have long known that, for particular skills, people tend to rate themselves imperfectly. In a famous study from 1981, researchers asked people to rate their driving ability. More than 90 percent considered themselves above average.
Of course, some people who think they are above-average drivers really are. But the 90 percent statistic shows that many people inflate how they compare with others. By definition, only 50 percent of people can rate above the median.
Similar results have been found in many other arenas. More than 90 percent of faculty members at one state university considered themselves above-average teachers. More than 30 percent of one company’s engineers rated themselves among the top 5 percent.
Studies like these led social scientists to conclude that people systematically exaggerate their own capabilities, that they have what researchers call “illusory superiority.”
But that’s not the whole story.
More recent studies have found examples in which people tend to underestimate their capabilities. One found that most people thought they would be worse than average at recovering from the death of a loved one. Another study reported that people thought they were worse than most at riding a unicycle. Here, they exhibit illusory inferiority.
The article continues:
Four factors consistently predicted overconfidence. (If you want to try this yourself, go here.)
First, people tend to be overconfident about skills that reflect one’s underlying personality or character. This helps explain why people overestimated how they compare with others in their ethics, their reliability as a friend and their value as a human being.
And since many people feel pressure to conform to gender norms, this may help us understand why men and women tend to be particularly overconfident on different tasks. Across the 100 skills tested, men are a bit more overconfident over all in how they compared themselves with members of their gender. But men’s overconfidence is particularly noticeable in stereotypically male tasks. Men think they can best the majority of other men in poker, fixing a chair and understanding science. Women are far less confident that they can outperform other women in these tasks.
In contrast, women think they are better than most other women in understanding other people’s feelings, cooking a delicious meal and child-rearing. Men are less confident that they outrank other men in these tasks.
As technology advances, will it continue to blur the lines between public and private? Explore what’s at stake and what you can do about it.
Fun fact: The average man thought he would be better than 63 percent of other men if he had to survive a zombie apocalypse. The average woman thought she would be better than 47 percent of other women at this task.
Students, read the entire article, then tell us:
— How good are you at judging your own abilities?
— How did the two lists you created compare to the authors’ findings on what things people tend to be overconfident and less confident about? What did you find most interesting or surprising about their lists?
— After reading the article, do you feel that you overinflate your abilities or diminish them? What, if anything, did you learn about yourself from the article?
— The article concludes:
Some of the early work on confidence presented a picture of human beings as comically cocky. Most people, we were told, walked around falsely convinced that they were better than other people. This new research gives us a more nuanced picture.
Sure, many people still traipse around deluded that they outshine others in their driving on non-icy roads, vegetable-chopping and cuddling. But when they imagine doing something difficult or something that they haven’t tried before, people tend to be timid and doubtful of their capabilities. When they go outside their comfort zone, people systematically sell themselves short.
What role does confidence, or lack of it, play in your life? Do you find yourself doubting your capabilities when trying new things out of your comfort zone? Will this article help you to more accurately assess your capabilities?
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