How to Remedy “Better-than-Average” Effects

In March of 2018, Kathleen Colby Dunn performed on the show American Idol under her stage name, Koby. She delivered what is remembered as one of the “longest, loudest, and oddest vocal runs in Idol history.” When she began belting out her song, singer Katy Perry, one of the competition’s judges, covered an ear. As Koby continued, the judges cringed. When Koby was eliminated from contention, her reaction was, “I thought I sang really, really fucking well. I’m sorry. I’m really good—I don’t know what happened.” Her assessment of her own performance was not tarnished by the judges’ reactions: “I’m pretty sure I just nailed it. I don’t know … I guess they wanted mediocre singers?” Koby looked into the camera and offered an explanation: “I think Katy’s just a little jealous. She can’t hit those notes.”

Believing that you are better than others has powerful implications. On the plus side, it can help you feel good about yourself and give you the courage to enter competitions. But believing that you are a “really good” singer can lead to public embarrassment on American Idol. Believing that your jokes are funnier than they are can make you annoying. Faith in your superior virtue can prompt sanctimonious stances that are more costly than vindicating. 

Fortunately, there are ways you can inoculate yourself against errors of self-aggrandizement in which you make an ass out of yourself. And you can do so without falling victim to errors of self-criticism in which you are too critical of your shortcomings or errors of underconfidence that discourage you from opportunities that would have been successful.

Fortunately, there are ways you can inoculate yourself against errors of self-aggrandizement in which you make an ass out of yourself.

A large literature documents the many circumstances under which the average person thinks that she is better than average. The most frequently cited result comes from a 1981 paper published by the Swedish psychologist Ola Svenson. Svenson asked American drivers to compare their skills to those of other drivers. Svenson found that 93 percent of them claimed their skill put them in the top half of all drivers. This result features as Exhibit A in the lineup of evidence for overplacement: the exaggerated belief in one’s own superiority. But let’s consider what exactly Svenson’s respondents were telling him; I see at least three possibilities.

The first possibility is that they knew they were exaggerating, but were nevertheless trying to impress. Their claims of superiority may have been like telling the person interviewing you that you think you have what it takes to do the job. You’re not actually completely sure, but in an interview you know you’re supposed to put your best foot forward. Maybe Svenson’s respondents weren’t convinced they were actually great drivers, but they were trying to appear confident nonetheless. If this explains their overplacement, then clarifying for them that accuracy really is the goal ought to reduce overconfidence. One way to clarify this is to pay people for being accurate. However, when other researchers have paid monetary incentives for accuracy, it did not do much to reduce inaccurate claims of superiority.

A second possible explanation is that instead of trying to fool others, drivers are simply fooling themselves about how skilled they are. For example, people might claim to be better drivers than others because they choose to forget the traffic tickets they get, or convince themselves that they didn’t really deserve that ticket for going 83 on a residential street with a speed limit of 30. If such self-delusion is at work, then clarifying the standards shouldn’t matter. Delusional drivers will still be overconfident even if we explain how they ought to evaluate their own driving skill. In truth, however, clarifying the standards makes an enormous difference.

One study explored the consequences of clarifying the standards. On the general category of “driving skill” participants claimed to be well above average. However, their overplacement reduced substantially when they rated themselves on specific driving skills such as: alertness, patience, checking for blind spots, using car mirrors, braking, speeding, and signaling. My colleagues and I have found, in related work, that although people will claim to be more intelligent than others, inaccurate claims of superiority disappear if the question is clearer: “How did you do, relative to the other participants in this study, on that intelligence test you all just took?” As the standards became clearer, people were less likely to believe that they were better than others. This result highlights the third explanation for Svenson’s overconfident drivers: different drivers have different definitions of skill.

If every person had his or her own idiosyncratic definition of what it meant to be a good driver, then all drivers could rate themselves as the best, and all of them could be right. And it makes sense that different people have different perspectives on what makes for good driving. Just as people have different opinions on what it means to be funny or smart or a good singer, different opinions about what constitutes good driving lead people to behave differently when they are behind the wheel. My father regarded caution as the paramount skill of a good driver, and he employed it in abundance. My son regards quick reaction times as a sign of good driving, and so brakes later than would have pleased my father. Each would regard himself as a better driver than the other, according to his own definition.

Clarifying what it means to be smart, or honest, or a good driver substantially reduces overplacement, and people’s self-assessments become better calibrated.

Ambiguity about how to measure performance accounts for a good deal of “better-than-average” effects like Svenson’s. Clarifying what it means to be smart, or honest, or a good driver substantially reduces overplacement, and people’s self-assessments become better calibrated. This implies a simple remedy for overplacement: clear definitions. Clarify what it takes to qualify as a safe driver, and fewer people will think they are better than everyone else. Clear definitions can help in situations as diverse as work performance and grade grubbing.

One domain rife with overplacement is assessments of professional work performance. People often believe that they are better at their jobs than their coworkers. If your employees grouse about being passed over for raises or promotions, you might consider clarifying the performance standards. Explaining exactly what behavior earns promotions will have the dual effect of helping people understand who got promoted and also clarify what they would have to do to earn the promotion themselves. This works in the classroom as well as in the office. I used to get complaints from students who thought they all deserved A’s. I started sharing copies of excellent work and, when I send out grades, also provide detailed explanations of how they were computed. Now I hardly ever get those complaints. 

So if you want to believe that you are the best, just carve out the narrow little niche that belongs only to you. But if you want to understand how you really stack up against others, use a common yardstick to compare everyone. And using a common measure to assess everyone is essential if you want your students, your employees, or your children to have a sense of how they stack up against others.  

Excerpted from Perfectly Confident: How to Calibrate Your Decisions Wisely. Copyright (c) 2020 by Don A. Moore. Used with permission of the publisher, HarperCollins. All rights reserved.