A reporter I once knew sashayed across the newsroom one day with his colossal ego draped across his chest, just as an old veteran mumbled, "I'd like to buy him for what he's worth and sell him for what he thinks he's worth."
The reporter didn't have a clue as to his own limited abilities. And according to some exhaustive research, he wasn't alone in his self-deception.
When it comes to knowing who we are, most of us aren't very good at it. In fact, we don't even know ourselves well enough to know that we don't know ourselves.
That's the picture that emerges from the work of researchers David Dunning of Cornell, Chip Heath of Stanford and Jerry M. Suls of the University of Iowa.
For some time now they have been studying a large body of research into self-evaluation, and much of it reveals that most of us aren't nearly as hot as we think we are. That can have very serious consequences, because if we don't know who we are, we could be endangering others as well as ourselves.
An editorial accompanying a lengthy report on the research in Psychological Science in the Public Interest (published by the American Psychological Society) sums it up nicely.
Some -- if not most -- of us are spinning through life "blissfully incompetent," because we have such an elevated view of our own abilities.
We may be failing and not even know it, blissful in our ignorance.
That may not make much difference for an aspiring rock star, the researchers point out. But it could be very unfortunate for a brain surgeon (as well as the patient).
"People overrate themselves," the researchers conclude, and sometimes others suffer the consequences.
Looking at a wide range of studies, they zero in on two main causes for "flawed self-assessment" (although they are by no means the only reasons): We deceive ourselves because we lack the necessary information to make an accurate assessment; and we often ignore or undervalue the information we do have.
It's easier in some areas than in others. Some things, like athletics, are easier to measure. It doesn't take long to learn if you're a good golfer, because if you're not, every time you venture onto the course that obnoxious little ball is going to make you look like a monkey.
But how do you know if you're really a good teacher? Or a fine artist? Or a terrific science writer?
It's especially difficult "in the realm of complex social skills," where standards may be harder to define and feedback may be lacking. Sometimes it's hard to tell a lout he's a lout -- and how do you measure "nice"?
The research is a bit surprising to me because I've known many people over the years who I thought were far more capable than they, themselves, seemed to believe. This lack of self-confidence can be very crippling.
But those folks are the exception rather than the rule, the researchers argue. They cite study after study revealing that we are more likely to see ourselves as better than we are, not worse.
In fact, people who barely know us may be better judges of our abilities than we are ourselves, according to the research.