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Katherine Burson
  Katherine Burson

Most of Us Are Poor Judges of Our Own Abilities

5/27/2004 --

New research shows that people, in general, are unaware of how their performance compares to others.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Most of us believe we can accurately gauge how our personal performance and abilities stack up against those of our peers at school, on the job or in competitive situations, but new research suggests that we are, in fact, poor judges of our own comparative talents.

Researchers from the University of Michigan Business School, Duke University and the University of Chicago report that people at all skill levels, including both top achievers and poor performers, are subject to similar degrees of inaccuracy and bias in making interpersonal comparisons.

These errors in judgment are tied to perceptions about the difficulty of an assigned task. When the task seems hard, top achievers underestimate their standings relative to their peers, resulting in less accurate predictions. When a task appears to be easy, poor performers overestimate their relative standings, making their predictions less accurate.

"Judgments of relative ability play an important role in decisions about engaging in competitive activities, purchasing goods and services, and undertaking challenging tasks," said Katherine Burson, assistant professor of marketing at the Michigan Business School. "Overestimates of relative ability can lead to frustration, loss and even physical harm, as in the case of beginning skiers who attempt to ski advanced trails. On the other hand, there also are significant domains in life where relative ability may be underestimated, so people fail to participate when they would have succeeded."

Burson and colleagues Richard Larrick of Duke and Joshua Klayman of Chicago conducted a series of 10 tasks, involving quizzes, trivia and word games, across three separate studies in an effort to investigate the cognitive processes underlying judgments of relative standing. The tasks were characterized as easy, moderate or hard, and the study participants were grouped according to their skill levels.

The test results revealed that both skilled and unskilled participants were similarly inaccurate in estimating their relative performance. However, exactly who appeared to be more or less accurate depended on the difficulty of the task, because the perceived difficulty affected estimates of relative ability–but not actual ability.

With harder tasks, unskilled participants expected to do poorly and, therefore, believed that their standings would be lower, which proved to be the case. Thus, unskilled participants were more on target with their estimations than skilled participants, who also anticipated performing relatively poorly–but actually did not–and, therefore, underestimated their standings.

On the flip side, skilled participants made more accurate estimations of relative standing when tasks were perceived as easy. With easy tasks, unskilled participants expected that they would perform above average–but actually did not–and overestimated their standings. Skilled participants, who also anticipated performing better–and did–proved more accurate in predicting that their standings would be higher.

The researchers found no evidence that the results were driven by any special lack of metacognition on the part of the unskilled participants, leading to the conclusion that estimating one's performance standing is difficult regardless of skill level.

"Better performers might be somewhat more sensitive to differences in their achievements, but there is still a significant degree of noise and bias in translating that sensitivity into judgments of relative standing," Burson said. "Thus, when feedback is ambiguous and the overall task bias is negative, the judgments of better performers deviate more from the truth."

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat
Phone: (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847