Study: Self-Images Often Erroneously Inflated

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.

'Blissfully Incompetent'

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.

Lacking Information, Ignoring Evidence

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"?

Stranger Judgment

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.

"Complete strangers armed only with scant information about an individual can predict that person's skills and abilities almost as well as he or she can, despite the fact that the individual has a lifetime of self-information to draw upon," the researchers say, pointing to a study in which participants were asked to estimate the intelligence of a stranger in a tape recording who had just read a weather report, and then walked out of the room.

"Participants who viewed these tapes -- and who had no additional information -- provided ratings of intelligence that predicted the targets' scores on standard IQ tests almost as well as the targets' self-ratings," the study reports.

Above Average Fallacy

Much of the evidence lies in the fact that we can't all be above average, yet many studies show most of us think we are.

In one study of nearly a million high school seniors, 70 percent said they had "above average leadership skills, but only 2 percent felt their leadership skills were below average."

Another study found that 94 percent of college professors think they do above average work.

And in another study, "when doctors diagnosed their patients as having pneumonia, predictions made with 88 percent confidence turned out to be right only 20 percent of the time."

Self-deception can have surprising results. One study reveals that women often say they would respond to sexual harassment with anger and assertiveness. But in fact "the dominant emotion of people placed in harassing situations turns out to be fear, and victims end up responding to harassing behaviors with silence and diversionary talk rather than confrontation," the researchers say.

So they were quite wrong in what they thought they would do under those very difficult circumstances.

Believing you're the smartest kid on the block can contribute to defeat, the researchers argue. You're more likely to stick with ideas that clearly don't work, and ignore the suggestions from others.

Fooling Ourselves

So why do we so often paint ourselves in a favorable light, even when we are confronted with very convincing evidence that we are wrong? Partly because we want so much to believe we're right.

"People are often motivated to reach flattering conclusions about themselves and their place in the world," the researchers conclude. "Thus, they mold, manage and massage the feedback the world provides them so that they can construe themselves as lovable and capable people."

But they're not fooling the people around them as much as they are fooling themselves.

Yet if "flawed self-assessment" is so pervasive, maybe we do it because we need it.

Maybe we've just got to believe we're above average, like all the kids at Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon.

Lee Dye's column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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