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Survivorship Bias: Why You Might Not Be As Above Average As You Think

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Are you ready for a science challenge? 

In the video below, I am going to clap out a few songs for you and I want you to guess the songs I’m clapping. Ready? Let’s play: 

Most people think they can do very well on this challenge. But, in actuality, they don’t do so great. Why? This is the perfect example of how we overestimate our abilities, especially when it comes to decoding people and settings. I share this challenge with you as a nice reminder to stay humble and stick to the basics.

Why You’re Not as Above Average as You Think You Are

It’s not just musical recognition and intelligence that individuals are overconfident about. People, primarily in Western cultures, tend to overestimate their abilities in most areas. Here are three of the most common ways people think too highly of themselves.

We consistently think we are more generous and selfless than we actually are

In one experiment, eighty-four percent of participants said they would cooperate with their assigned partners to yield an equal outcome for both of them. However, in the experiment, only sixty-one percent cooperated, while the remainder chose to act in their own self-interest. In real life, this comes up often when people have the opportunity to help others, and consider themselves the type of kind and generous person who would, and yet they don’t offer any assistance because it is not convenient for them.

We have a survivorship bias

Survivorship bias causes us to focus on our successes and ignore our failures. This contributes to our overconfidence because we rarely take time to acknowledge our mistakes. Instead, our brain reminiscences about memories where we thrived, because that’s what feels good to focus on. 

We think our interpretation of the world is correct

Because of this, even when we fail, it is easy to blame the failure on someone else for not being able to appreciate how great our work is. Likewise, in arguments, we have a tendency to believe that our logic is solid, and though we think we can understand the other person’s perspective, we believe they are wrong because they are unable to understand our perspective. If they were able to interpret our perspective accurately, they would see that we are right. The other person is thinking the same thing, which is why it sometimes can seem impossible to resolve conflicts.

The Competence Paradox

What’s interesting is that the least competent people are most likely to rate their abilities higher than they actually are, while the most competent individuals are most likely to underrate their abilities. Researchers don’t have a definite reason for why this happens, but possibilities include that individuals who are highly competent tend to be in demanding roles where there is constant pressure to keep improving and, because many things are easy for them, they assume they are easy for everyone else too, making them think they are average.

Another factor that prevents overconfidence is when people are forced to acknowledge their failures due to unwanted results. A study in the Journal of Consumer Research found that people tend to be overconfident before they do something, but their confidence quickly drops if they didn’t do as well as expected on their first try. If there is a second opportunity, most people greatly underestimate how well they will do.

This occurs because being forced to confront failure eliminates one of the biggest sources of overconfidence: ignorance. Everyone doesn’t think they are better than average because they are egotistical by nature. Rather, many people believe they have superior abilities because that is what they are told. Most people are overly positive when giving direct feedback because they don’t want to offend the other person.

Though well-intended, exaggerated feedback gives people a false sense of abilities and hurts them later on.

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