As humans, we’re pretty bad at judging our own abilities. From exercising to our sense of humour, we’re all certain that we’re the best at everything we do. The problem is, in a lot of cases, we’re way worse at things than we think we are. That can keep us from succeeding the long term.
Overestimating your own abilities might not seem like a major problem. However, when we’re blissfully ignorant of our skills, we can’t work toward improving them.
We don’t know why our brains do this, but they do. The best you can do is recognise where your brain fails and try to keep it in mind before judging yourself (and others).
We Overestimate Our Positive Qualities
Most of us think we’re awesome and more often than not, we judge ourselves as better than average in most traits. We do this in all kinds of ways. You might believe you’re a better driver than you really are (after all, everyone else on the road sucks, right? You must be above average). Or you might think you’re a lot nicer than you are (other people are jerks). You might even see yourself as smarter than you are.
Psychologists call this illusory superiority. Illusory superiority is a cognitive bias that causes us to overestimate our positive qualities and underestimate our negative qualities. People tend to think their memories are better than they are, that they’re more popular than they are, or that they’re healthier than they really are. This basically explains why the less we know, the more we think we know. It’s a confusing phenomenon, but it’s incredibly common. BBC Future covers one of the strangest examples of this:
In 1999, Justin Kruger and David Dunning, from Cornell University, New York, tested whether people who lack the skills or abilities for something are also more likely to lack awareness of their lack of ability. At the start of their research paper they cite a Pittsburgh bank robber called McArthur Wheeler as an example, who was arrested in 1995 shortly after robbing two banks in broad daylight without wearing a mask or any other kind of disguise. When police showed him the security camera footage, he protested “But I wore the juice”. The hapless criminal believed that if you rubbed your face with lemon juice you would be invisible to security cameras.
Basically, the more incompetent you are at something, the less likely you’ll realise you’re bad at it unless a professional points it out.
We talk a lot about teaching yourself skills, but it’s important to learn with a community of people because you might not realise when you’re doing something poorly. Likewise, if you really want to get better it’s good to learn how to give (and take) constructive criticism.
We Ignore Failures
We learn best from our own mistakes, but we tend to ignore the failures of others, which means we can’t learn from them. This is called survivorship bias: a logical error that shows that we tend to concentrate on success and overlook failures (which results in overly optimistic beliefs). It doesn’t sound too terrible on its own, but You Are Not So Smart explains a couple of the potential problems with survivorship bias:
You must remind yourself that when you start to pick apart winners and losers, successes and failures, the living and dead, that by paying attention to one side of that equation you are always neglecting the other. If you are thinking about opening a restaurant because there are so many successful restaurants in your hometown, you are ignoring the fact the only successful restaurants survive to become examples. Maybe on average 90 per cent of restaurants in your city fail in the first year. You can’t see all those failures because when they fail they also disappear from view…All you are left with are super successes, and looking at them day after day you might think it’s a great business to get into when you are actually seeing evidence that you should avoid it…
Survivorship bias also flash-freezes your brain into a state of ignorance from which you believe success is more common than it truly is and therefore you leap to the conclusion that it also must be easier to obtain. You develop a completely inaccurate assessment of reality thanks to a prejudice that grants the tiny number of survivors the privilege of representing the much larger group to which they originally belonged.
While survivorship bias sounds like a problem for historians and scientists, it’s something we all run into every day. When we think success is easy to obtain, we also think we’re good enough at something to be successful, even if we’re not. This is a big problem with a lot of self-help books. When we constantly look for the easy way to increase wealth and happiness, we tend to turn to those who’ve succeeded and we inevitably fail trying to use their techniques. Since self-help books don’t talk about failures, it looks like everything they do is successful, so we give up when things don’t immediately work out.
Which isn’t to say that when we seek out advice on topics, we should only look for failures. Recognising the survivorship bias is more about understanding that people tend to only present their successes, so no matter how much better they seem at something than you are, they probably failed just as often. Likewise, when you’re telling your own story, keep in mind how often you failed before you got it right. Others will appreciate it. Failure is good for you, and chronicling your mistakes keeps you from repeating them.
We Believe We Know Ourselves Better Than Others
Strangely, we think we know more about ourselves than others do. This is called the illusion of asymmetric insight. Basically, I think I know myself better than you think you know yourself. This causes problems in how we approach arguments.
In a paper published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers share a few examples of this phenomenon:
Data from these six studies provide evidence about the processes and mechanisms that may underlie the conviction that we know others better than they know us, and the related condition that the gap between actor and observer insight is somehow smaller when we observe our peers than when they observe in us. One important source of these conditions is the belief that access to private thoughts and feelings is more critical when it is oneself than a peer who constitutes the object of scrutiny.
After six studies, researchers found that people believe they interpret the world better than their peers. This works on an individual level and on a group level — which is where things get tricky.
Let’s use the example of political parties. Because of asymmetric insight, in a political debate you don’t believe the other side will ever understand your point of view. At the same time, you believe you understand their point of view, but you’re so smart you know they’re wrong. For example: “I’m too smart to believe those Democrats,” you’ll tell yourself. “I understand everything about the Democrats and disagree with them. They don’t even try to understand us Republicans. If they could understand us, they’d be on our side.” (And vice-versa.)
The same goes for arguments with your significant other, your boss, and anyone else. We’re repeatedly told to try and “put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” but it’s a pointless exercise because we think we’ll do it better than them. The best you can do is confront your bias and hope for the best.
Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot you can do to make yourself recognise when you’re falling prey to these issues. When you notice them happen and understand them, you’ll at least be aware of your own blind spots. We’re all blissfully unaware of our of our ignorance in some way or another, so keep that in mind before you judge others.