Recently I covered the Dunning-Kruger effect which explains why the incompetent don’t know they’re incompetent.
But there’s a flip-side to the Dunning-Kruger: sometimes the competent don’t know when they’re competent.
This is the worse-than-average effect. This means that when you’re good at something, you tend to assume that other people are good at it as well. So, when you’re faced with a difficult task that you are good at, you underestimate your own ability.
It doesn’t just kick in when we have special skills, but also when we think that the odds are long, say because the task is particularly difficult. For example Kruger (1999) found that people underestimate their ability at stereotypically difficult tasks like playing chess, telling jokes, juggling or computer programming.
On the other hand they overestimate their ability at stereotypically easy tasks like using a mouse, driving a car or riding a bicycle.
Here’s another example, described by Moore (2007):
“University of Iowa students report believing that they stand only a 6% chance of beating fellow University of Iowa students in a trivia contest featuring questions on the history of Mesopotamia (Windschitl et al., 2003). In contrast, a trivia contest featuring questions on TV sitcoms inspired an average estimated probability of winning of 70%. Naturally, these beliefs are erroneous because the tests will be simple or difficult for everyone. On average, the actual probability of winning must be 50%.”
How can we explain all this?
“When people compare themselves with their peers, they focus egocentrically on their own skills and insufficiently take into account the skills of the comparison group.” (Kruger, 1999)
In other words we tend to forget how good other people are at riding bicycles and how bad they are at telling jokes or computer programming.
The same is true of judgements we make about ourselves. For example older people tend to assume they are less attractive and athletic than other people their own age (Zell & Alicke, 2011).
The moral of the story is simple: sometimes we do ourselves down, especially when faced with a difficult task or when we have special skills. Under these circumstances we are better than we know.
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
Image credit: Henry_Spencer
→ This post is part of a series on cognitive biases:
- The Dunning-Kruger Effect: Why The Incompetent Don’t Know They’re Incompetent
- The Worse-Than-Average Effect: When You’re Better Than You Think
- Why You’re a Sucker for the Impact Bias
- The Hindsight Bias: I Knew It All Along!
- How to Overcome the Egocentric Bias
- See How Easily You Can Avoid The Memory Bias
- 4 Belief Biases That Can Reduce Pleasure
- Does Delaying Decisions Lead to Better Outcomes?
- The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion
- Why Society Doesn’t Change: The System Justification Bias
- The Availability Bias: Why People Buy Lottery Tickets
- The Illusion of Transparency
- The Illusion of Control: Are There Benefits to Being Self-Deluded?
- The Endowment Effect: Why It’s Easy to Overvalue Your Stuff
- Illusory Correlations: When The Mind Makes Connections That Don’t Exist
- Anchoring Effect: How The Mind is Biased by First Impressions
- The Confirmation Bias: Why It’s Hard to Change Your Mind
- The Well-Travelled Road Effect: Why Familiar Routes Fly By
- How a Psychological Bias Makes Groups Feel Good About Themselves And Discredit Others
- The Sobering Up Effect: Why People Get More Pessimistic As The Moment of Truth Gets Closer