Most of us are poor judges of our own abilities

May 27, 2004

Most of us are poor judges of our own abilities

ANN ARBOR—If you believe you’re a good driver or a lousy dancer, think again.

Most of us believe we can accurately gauge how our personal performance and abilities stack up against our peers, but new research suggests that we are in fact poor judges of our own comparative talents.

Researchers from the University of Michigan Business School, Duke University and the University of Chicago report that people at all skill levels, including both top achievers and poor performers, show similar degrees of inaccuracy and bias in making interpersonal comparisons.

These errors in judgment are tied to perceptions about the difficulty of an assigned task. When the task seems hard, top achievers underestimate their standing relative to their peers, resulting in less accurate predictions. When a task appears to be easy, poor performers overestimate their relative standing, making their predictions less accurate.

“Judgments of relative ability play an important role in decisions about engaging in competitive activities, purchasing goods and services, and undertaking challenging tasks,” said Katherine Burson, assistant professor of marketing at the Michigan Business School. “Overestimates of relative ability can lead to frustration, loss and even physical harm, as in the case of beginning skiers who attempt to ski advanced trails. On the other hand, there also are significant domains in life where relative ability may be underestimated, so people fail to participate when they would have succeeded.”

Burson and colleagues Richard Larrick of Duke and Joshua Klayman of Chicago conducted a series of 10 tasks involving quizzes, trivia and word games, across three separate studies in an effort to investigate the cognitive processes underlying judgments of relative standing. The tasks were characterized as easy, moderate or hard, and the study participants were grouped according to their skill levels.

The test results revealed that both skilled and unskilled participants were similarly inaccurate in estimating their relative performance. However, exactly who appeared to be more or less accurate depended on the difficulty of the task, because the perceived difficulty affected estimates of relative ability—but not actual ability.

With harder tasks, unskilled participants expected to do poorly and, therefore, believed that their standing would be lower, which proved to be the case. Thus, unskilled participants were more on target with their estimations than skilled participants, who also expected to perform relatively poorly—but actually did not—and, therefore, underestimated their standing.

On the flip side, skilled participants made more accurate estimations of relative standing when tasks were perceived as easy. With easy tasks, unskilled participants expected that they would perform above average—but actually did not—and overestimated their standing. Skilled participants, who also expected to perform better—and did—proved more accurate in predicting that their standings would be higher.

The researchers found no evidence that the results were driven by any special lack of knowledge on the part of the unskilled participants, leading to the conclusion that estimating one’s performance standing is difficult regardless of skill level.


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