You’re not as good as you think you are 

The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.
– Stephen Hawking

Several years after graduating from medical school, a group of physicians who had graduated from the same class were each asked how he or she ranked in their graduating class. They all responded “in the top 50%.” 

At least 50% of the group suffered from a cognitive bias known as illusory superiority—most of us think we are better than we really are. We overestimate our own qualities and abilities relative to the qualities and abilities of other people.

Most people, when asked to rate themselves relative to certain abilities and traits—such as intelligence, charitableness, or how well they can drive—give themselves above-average grades, such as a score of 7 out of 10. But by definition, it’s impossible for a majority of people to be above average. 

David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell adds to the conversation:

  • Studies have shown that incompetent people are more likely to overestimate their skills, whereas top performers are more likely to underrate themselves. 
  • Most people do well assessing others, but are wildly positive about themselves. “When it comes to us, we think it’s all about our intention, our effort, our desire,”
  • North Americans seem to be the kings and queens of overestimation. In general, Western culture values self-esteem, while Eastern cultures value self-improvement. [From September 17, 2018]

Here’s a great YouTube video about illusory superiority (also called the Dunning-Kruger effect).

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves and wiser people are so full of doubt.”
—Bertrand Russell

[reminder]What are your thoughts about this essay?[/reminder]

Tale of Three Cities trip

Last month, 36 friends joined me on a 15-day European tour to London, Paris, Lisbon, Gibraltar, Barcelona, Toulon, Florence, and Rome. Traveling with friends is among the most rewarding experiences in life. We had an unlawful amount of fun, made memorable moments together, learned a lot, ate too much, and returned safe and sound.

I’ll announce the next travel-with-friends trip in January.

8 Replies to “You’re not as good as you think you are ”

  1. I would love to know the way in which some of the studies were conducted. If these were face to face interviews, would the answers have been different to those on a questionnaire or via a computer survey?

    In the case of the group of physicians, did the whole cohort take the survey? If not, only the ones who did well may have responded. Who wants to admit to being in the bottom 20% of the cohort?

    Did any of the surveys ask for supporting evidence for the supposed level of competency?

    I wonder how many employers never challenge an incompetent employee because the employer just doesn’t understand that job role and can’t be bothered to either find out or carry-out an investigation. If you receive a pay rise every year, you begin to believe that you must be doing a good job.

    Unless people have an opportunity to attend training events within their particular field, they often don’t rub up against brighter or more up to date professionals. I realised that I was doing something wrong when I had to take part in a group activity on some statutory training. No-one was from my company and it wasn’t a competitive environment so it was a safe place to recognise your own lack of knowledge. By the way, you had to pass the exam at the end.

    I would be also be interested to know if there was any gender differentiation in the responses from those surveyed.

    I enjoyed the video clip very much.

    1. Angela, as always, you bring interesting perspectives into the conversation. I’m not sure about the specifics of the research done with the physicians, but it’s interesting that regardless of whether the questions were asked in person or by digital survey, no one was willing to admit that they graduated in the bottom half of their class. Take care and enjoy Thanksgiving (do you celebrate Thanksgiving in England?).

  2. Don:
    It is great pleasure to be a new member of Stonebriar Community Church in the 20th year of it’s faithful Love God, Love others theme.

    I take notes of Pastor Swindoll’s weekly message and refer to those notes during the week as I know what I see & hear must be applied beyond the time allowed in church worship.

    I am also inspired by the music program you direct. I am particularly looking forward to December 11 when the Dallas Symphony is @ SCC!

    Congratulations on being the person who directs this portion of the SCC worship program!

    Regarding this article:

    1) I agree that those who overrate themselves likely, should ‘take another look’.

    2) However, in way many instances, individuals, especially those of less than 20 years of age,
    are told they must be #1. Logically, that is a unlikely goal. Doing the best you can, over
    time; however, is the best objective.

    3) I believe our ‘value in life’ must be judged based on the entire ‘works accomplished’, rather than
    a shorter time period or a particular instance.

    4) I believe most individuals become frustrated when they do not reach #1 status, then tend to
    become more negative about life and their circumstances.


    When I face a difficult times in life, I ‘turn it over to him’.

    With that help, I find a direction which is healthy and satisfying for me. It is amazing what ‘relief” I am awarded.

    I feel I have many talents to apply in service to the missions Stonebriar leadership chooses.

    In addition to your musical talents, I admire your ‘relaxed demeanor’.

    It may seem ‘average’to you; however,in my 72 years of life, I find this characteristic rare indeed!

    Possibly, it comes from the soothing aspect of music you have in your life.

    Pastor Swindoll stated Sunday that we must have AN ATTITUDE OF GRATITUDE for what God has awarded our nation. We are indeed very fortunate to be in THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICAN.


    Barton C. Johnson
    108 N.Illinois St.
    Celina, TX 75009-6203

    1. Barton, I so appreciate your response and the thoughts you have shared. I agree: the idea that we should strive to be #1 is unnecessary and impossible. We should strive to always be growing and learning and do the best we can do.
      We have a wonderful church in Stonebriar. It is privilege to serve with pastor Swindoll.
      Thanks for our friendship and your involvement in the church.

  3. OK, I’ll take the bait. I know I’m well below average on most life skills and intelligence. Someone has to be on the back side of the bell curve. It might as well be me.

    But I’ll strive to improve to be at least average next year.

    1. Jackie,
      Ha, ha…you’re well on the plus side.
      The point is, we all need to take a more sober approach to our strengths.
      Thanks for being my friend.

  4. I appreciate your thoughtful articles. As I read this one, it made so much sense. I had a vision of some of the tryouts for “American Idol. ” I didn’t watch that show much at all but caught some of the truly cringe-worthy attempts at greatness. I recall one where the person just didn’t agree with the judges, even though he was truly bad, and insisted that he would be a star one day.

    Your quote from Hawking reminded Charles Pierce’s book, “Idiot America.” Although Pierce takes aim at some Christians (not entirely without merit in at least one of his examples), there is some validity to his assertions:
    · Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.
    · Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough.
    · Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.

    Christians should recognize in your article, as well as in Pierce’s book, that overestimating oneself is one of the timeless symptoms that show we have a sinful nature. Competent people, Christian or otherwise, recognize that the old adage, “Nobody’s perfect,” has more depth to it than merely the idea that “everyone makes a mistake every now and then.”

    God help us all to see that we are generally better and more productive when we are honest about our limitations. If more people were honest in this way, maybe they’d also see their need for Jesus.

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