One of SmartPlanet's most popular features this year is the Q&A with Cornell University psychology professor David Dunning on why people tend to rate themselves as more competent and more highly skilled than they actually are, AKA the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
I found this article fascinating because many of my smart and successful friends and colleagues seem to have the opposite problem. They tend to rate themselves as less competent than they are and feel like frauds when they're praised or awarded for their work. Studies have shown that up to 70 percent of Americans struggle with imposter syndrome, this feeling that accolades are undeserved and their success is a fluke, at some point in their lives. How is it then that most of us also overrate our own abilities?
Here's Dunning's response:
By far it is more common to find people overestimating rather than underestimating themselves, but a minority of the time it is certainly possible for people to slip into perceptions of “impostership.” They do so mostly for the same reasons that people overestimate: Life provides no answer sheets objectively telling people how well they are doing. They have to infer it, and they can make mistakes.
We’ve seen in our research some pockets of circumstances in which people underestimate themselves. In one such instance, we were exploring how people’s pre-conceived notions of themselves influenced their performance estimates. We gave college students a pop quiz on science, and found that women underestimated their performance relative to the men even though they were actually doing just as well. Why? The women walked into our quiz with a pre-conceived notion that they weren’t scientifically talented, relative to what the men thought of themselves, and we were able to trace their performance underestimates that day in the quiz room to these pre-conceived notions.
In another instance, one aspect of the Dunning-Kruger effect is that top performers often miss just how special or unique their performances are. They “get” how they are doing objectively, but they think the task is easy for everyone and so think of themselves as nothing special. Aspects of this sound like the imposter syndrome, in that everyone is telling the imposter they are so good yet the imposter believes it comes easy to everyone else, too. What the imposter may not know is just how much everyone else is struggling.
A lightbulb flickered on over my head when I read that last paragraph. Top performers miss how special they are because those performances comes so naturally to them while people at the other end of the spectrum are tricked by their own ignorance into over-rating their performances. Unknown unknowns are bliss.
SmartPlanet readers, is the Dunning-Kruger Effect at work in your life? Tell us how.
Aly is a writer and editor based in Winston-Salem, N.C. Her byline has appeared in The Good Men Project, The Huffington Post, A Practical Wedding and Offbeat Families. She holds a degree from Georgia State University.
Aly does not have financial holdings that would influence how or what she covers.
She edits for SmartPlanet and is not an employee of CBS.
After 45 years of work experience only now I realise that I may fall in this 5 % group simply because we set the target too high for the quality of end result. This just might be the most common reason for others too.
I don't know how it is with others, but I can review something I've made or done and appreciate it as well crafted. But I feel uneasy and even diminished when they people start praising me or going too far in praising what I've done. I do not like the culture of superlatives and flattery. In fact I feel some resentment at their assumption that they have the right to tell me what my value is, lol.
When I praise something I admire I praise it, offering insights that are appreciated.
When I taught smart kids I never praised the person, just the work, with specifics, just as I gave specifics when it was necessary to offer criticism. That was almost always accompanied by a brief remark about the specific potential I saw in what they were working on. The children clearly a[preciated this approach and always acted with confidence in my class.
I am sure some of the generalities being observed are influenced by culture.
I also question the original "title 40% / 5% " observation. It was observed at two Silicon Valley companies. I don't think anyone believes this community's companies are "typical"...of the US or anywhere else in the world.
This is a discussion of perceptions (one's self and others). So far, not very helpful in coming to any new or deeper understanding of either.
The most amazing geniuses among us are those who can DO difficult tasks with ease, who know HOW they do those difficult tasks with ease, and who can EXPLAIN TO OTHERS how they also can do those difficult tasks with ease (over time, with practice). Those uber-geniuses are called "great teachers." Hopefully you've had a few in your life. Strive to become one yourself, regardless of your profession.
I'm married to a super smart person who believes they are average, or less than average at times, and I find it very trying. For them some things are so easy that they can't understand why anyone else would struggle with it. They tend to demean those who struggle because they see them as lazy and just not motivated enough.
People with high IQ need to also have high EQ (emotional intelligence) to function in society well.
I am by IQ measures cleverer than most people though not necessarily in everything. My major intellectual skill is 'resource investigating', so as you can imagine, the Web is a trap. This latter claim is base on a personality test interpretation.
However I certainly do not think I am better at achieving most things. My key abilities mean I am a dilettante As an early colleague moaned, you know the right questions to ask but you won't understand the answers. (He was rude: he meant 'you won't bother to work on understanding the answers')
But actually high abilities are a disadvantage. Not only am I easily distracted by interesting things, but I am constantly bothered by people who think I know about everything, which of course send me off to look for the answers. So I keep them my abilities locked under my hat. People are also surprised and maybe frightened: I take care not to annoy them
People should know their abilities and their limits, but have they the time to cultivate the one and overcome the other?
The true lack of understanding of exactly what composes both intelligence and specific abilities related to it is great. The insecurities around our own intelligence, abilities and our direct and indirect responses to them - is even greater. The concept that this is somehow "news" because it is "popular" - unfortunately categorizes the institution, the author/editor as not knowing what "news" really is - which if you read SP more than once - you know of course this isn't news either.
I think in society right now we're experiencing a new 'X-Factor' syndrome whereby mediocrity is the new excellence. Everyone is self entitled and believes that prancing around declaring (and deluding) themselves as experts is the new defacto point of reference.
Students are consistently held in education with the promise that (expensive) higher-education qualifications lead to amazing jobs, yet when I left education a far smaller percentage of the education-leaving population had such qualifications so academic talent was easier to spot. Now 19 out of 20 education-leavers have higher level qualifications it's about identifying those with the highest grades and with education standards 'changing' it appears that a greater proportion of students achieve the higher grades, or additional grade leveling is created such that no longer is 'A' the best grade, but A+, or A* etc.
We're constantly bombarded with messages telling us that all we have to do is 'really really really really WANT' something and it will magically happen. Again, before (non)talent shows on TV people interested in becoming musicians etc used to find a way to pick up a rubbish instrument and belt out some noise, or would harass a local bar to sing a few tunes to patrons in the hope of recognition. Now standing in a line with a stupid costume and a back story of some tear-jerking event, plus the desire for fame is all that's required.
What I've observed is that some people have full out narcissism while others exhibit simple confidence. Confidence is an extremely important factor in people's success. The challenge with confidence is how can one obtain it (yes, studying a subject and becoming an expert on it is one way)? And then for the social study folks out there studying this concept, how can you measure confidence and its impact on a person's success?
As someone who always tested well within the top 5%, I can relate to the idea that a task that was easy for me should be easy for most people.
That reality is actually a challenge for more capable people when put in managerial situations. It took me a long time to accept the fact that often a job I could do in an hour or two might take someone else all day. The temptation is to do it all yourself, which works fine until you run out of hours in the day :)
Another challenge is when you recognize your strong abilities, you assume they extend in more directions than they actually do. It's only when you watch people who are in the top 5% doing something you have done before that the difference becomes clear.
I'm also curious how much of this is cultural. My Polish girlfriend immediately, when I mentioned the 40% thinking they're in the 5%, suggested that this was a very American attitude and that it's probably the opposite here. My experience would tend to agree with her thoughts. Poland seems, on balance, much more aligned with "imposter" syndrome.
All I know, as clearly as I'm able, is that I'm in the top 5% in some areas, and probably in the bottom 5% in some others. It may be true that others often don't recognize my top 5% but that hasn't really been my experience. Of course, being self-deluded might be one of my top 5% skills. Who knows?
@dduggerbiocepts In a similar article, someone made an interesting point. The point was that most tests do not actually predict what a person could do in a real world situation. He used the analogy of a woman picking up a car to save someone who is pinned under the car. In a stressful situation people can act more intelligently, stronger, faster and more effectively.
This also implies that we are creating expectations with testing that can either make a person feel more intelligent than they are or feel less intelligent. This is what the article is about, the effect of expectations based on testing that leads to unrealistic self evaluation.