Most Don't Know How Good (or Bad) They Are

Think you're pretty good at evaluating your own skills compared to the skills of others?

Think again.

New research reveals that most of us are really quite lousy at it. If the task at hand is judged to be pretty hard, top achievers tend to underestimate their abilities relative to their peers. And if the task seems easy, poor achievers tend to overestimate their performance. So top performers think they are worse than they are, and losers think they are better.

Choose Your Horse

Katherine Burson, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Michigan, learned that lesson years ago when she was guiding people on horseback along the trails of Napa and Sonoma counties in Northern California.

"People would show up and we would ask them if they were an amateur, a beginner, or an advanced rider," Burson says. That was a handy bit of information because it's important to match the rider with the horse.

"We wanted to get them on the right horse, so it wouldn't bore them to death if they were an advanced rider," she says. And they didn't want to put anyone on a frisky horse if they didn't know what they were doing.

"People were pretty bad at self assessment," she says.

"So people who really should be on a beginner horse were overestimating their ability in asking for a widow maker, and people who were pretty good riders would say they were a little bit worse than they actually were, and they would end up on a horse that was boring for them," Burson says.

Years later, she remembered that while working on her doctorate at the University of Chicago. Burson and several colleagues set up a series of tests to find out just how skilled other students were at evaluating their own abilities. Undergraduates who participated in the study were asked to estimate how they performed compared to others who were taking the same test.

Sometimes, she says, the test was really easy. For example, students were asked to name the last president of the United States who delivered a commencement speech at the university. All of them knew it was Bill Clinton.

But sometimes it was pretty hard. They were asked, for example, to name the year in which the university president divided the institution into five different departments. A lot of them missed that one.

After the test, the participants were asked how they thought they did. Anyone who got 10 out of 20 questions on the hard test right scored near the top of the heap, so they were the highest achievers, but they didn't realize that.

"Even people who were getting 10 right still thought they were pretty lousy," Burson says. They didn't realize that everybody else was doing poorly also. So they underestimated their own performance.

And conversely, people who thought they had done well actually fared pretty badly, compared to the other participants.

Judging in a Vacuum

Of course, none of these participants were underachievers, since they were enrolled in a university with very high admissions criteria. But the point is they were evaluating themselves relative to each other, and even some of the winners thought they were losers. So Burson says the results should be the same, even for us common folk.

"When people guess, most of the time they are a little bit off," says Burson, and that's the key here. We have to guess about the quality of our own performance, most of the time, because we don't really have all the facts we need to make a rational judgment.

If you're a professional golfer, for example, you have some information to rely on because you have been rated professionally, she points out. But if you're a weekend duffer, you really don't have anything to go on other than guesswork.

So Tiger Woods has more than his own self assessment to base his judgment on. As the No. 1 golfer in the world, he has good reason to believe that he has a chance of winning every tournament he enters, as the golf announcers tell us so often. But of course he doesn't win them all, so even his global standing doesn't guarantee that his expectations are reliable.

For the rest of us, it's even tougher, because we have fewer facts. And if we don't have anything other than guesswork to guide us, chances are we're going to wind up on a killer horse. Or at least playing some guy who's on his way to the Hall of Fame.

That's the point of the whole study, Burson says. It's aimed at people in marketing, and they need to know that when a potential customer describes his or her own abilities, it might be worth while to ask a few more questions. Chances are, the pigeon is guessing.

And like so many other studies, it reminds us once again that we don't know ourselves as well as we think we do.

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