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If 40% of us think we're in the top 5%, what do the actual top 5% think?

Posting in Science
 
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A common misquote. What Thoreau really said in Walden is more nuanced: "“I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."
 
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. 

Read the feature here: Q&A: Why 40% of us think we're in the top 5%

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.  

Photo: Flickr/ Son of Groucho

— By on April 15, 2014, 6:53 AM PST

Alyson Windsor

News Editor

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. Disclosure