Sunday, June 4, 2017

Why You Aren't as Great as You Think You Are

I'm sorry to tell you this, but you aren't as great as you think you are.  If it makes you feel better, neither am I. 

If you ask a random person to rank themselves on a scale between one and 10, they might say something like "I'm average.  Probably a 7."  

The problem with this statement is that on a 10 point scale the "average" should be 5, yet in large survey's most people rank their appearance between 6 and 8.  Perhaps this is why if you ever tell a woman that she is a 5 she's likely to take it as an insult.  Especially if you're on a date with her.  

We all have our strengths and weaknesses, but for a majority of things we tend to rank at or near average with the rest of the population.  While we can understand how this must be true, it's hard for us to really believe it applies to ourselves.  That's because we tend to believe we have a better grasp of our abilities than other people do, and as such rank ourselves better than most when it comes to what we are capable of.  This is one of many cognitive biases that everyone has, which is sometimes referred to as the overconfidence effect.  

In short we like to believe that we are better people than we are.  At least in Western cultures like the United States.  In many Eastern countries, such as China, Korea, and Japan people are much better at estimating their actual abilities compared to others.  Much of this can be attributed to the value Western culture puts on self esteem.  That self esteem has it's benefits, but it makes us look quite ignorant when you see how it can inflate our opinions of ourselves in mathematically impossible ways.  For example...

93% of Americans believe they are a better driver than most others.  Or as George Carlin put it, "Did you ever notice anyone driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone driving faster than you is a maniac?"  This means when you are yelling at the "maniac" who just cut across 5 lanes of traffic, he is calling you and all other drivers "idiots" for getting in his way.

Perhaps one reason why we think we are better drivers than so many others is that we rarely see people who drive the same way as we do.  You can drive for 5 hours on an interstate and never see the driver one mile ahead of you who is driving the same speed.  During the 5 hours you always stay one mile away from each other and out of sight.  Instead you only see the "maniacs" who keep passing you, or the "idiots" who you keep having to pass.  At the same time we ignore our own driving faults, but notice those of other people.  I once had another driver give me a dirty look because I was talking on my phone while driving.  Instead of feeling embarrassed for my dangerous driving habit I felt righteously indignant when I noticed the other driver had a little dog sitting on his lap.  In my mind I reasoned my phone driving might not be the safest, but at least my phone won't step on the steering wheel or lick my face while I'm trying to change lanes.  

These biases don't just affect people we don't know.  When it comes to the office, 70% of us believe we have better leadership skills than most of our coworkers, and 85% of us believe we can work well with others better than they can work well with us.  Amazingly, 25% of people believe they are in the top 1% when it comes to working well with others.  These statistics alone explains why Congress is so dysfunctional.  You end up with a room full of people who feel they should be the leader, and believe the only thing keeping them from working with the opposition party is that those "idiots" can't make an effort to reach across the aisle. 

One area where the overconfidence effect can vary among Americans is intelligence.  It still exists, in that 55% of Americans believe they are smarter than average, and only four percent can admit they are less intelligent than most people.  However rich white men are much more likely to inflate their IQ than a less successful minority woman.

Men on average overestimate their IQ by 5 points, and an average woman underestimates her IQ by 5.  That inflation increases or decreases when you factor in success.  Basically it's white privilege denial.  A white man who is born into a rich family has a much higher chance of success than anyone else.  It's a lot easier for that man to convince himself his success comes from his intelligence, leadership skills, and ability to work well with others rather than just admit he was born with an advantage.  

Again, this overconfidence effect is one of many cognitive biases that everyone has.  Try to keep it in mind when you think yourself superior to others.  And in case you believe that you aren't affected by these biases, know that you aren't alone.  85% of people in the US believe they are less biased than the Average American.

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