How Well Do You Know Yourself? Science Says Not So Well
Most people claim that they have an accurate self-assessment and that they are aware of their blindspots and aware how other people see them. My experience as a coach of CEOs and executives over the past 35 years has shown me that is not true.
It’s worth looking at some scientific studies that examine the question of accurate self-assessment.
Are you as smart as you think?
People tend to think they are more intelligent than others, but results from a recent systematic survey of Americans’ beliefs about their own intelligence (the first to be conducted in 50 years) found that about 70% of men and 60% of women agreed with the statement: “I am more intelligent than the average person.” The team was forced to conclude that Americans’ “self-flattering beliefs about intelligence are alive and well several decades after their discovery was first reported.” Other work has found that our over-estimates of our intelligence can be staggeringly huge — around 30 IQ points, on average, according to a study by Gilles Gignac and Marcin Zajenkowski which also found that we tend to over-estimate our romantic partner’s intelligence even more than our own). The sobering lesson is that you’re probably a lot less smart than you think are.
People tend to think they are more knowledgeable than others. The “Dunning-Kruger effect” relates specifically to the tendency of people who are poor at a task to over-estimate their ability at it. As David Dunning has written: “The scope of people’s ignorance is often invisible to them.”
This over-confidence can be dangerous both to the individual and to others. For example, a US study of student pilots found that those who’d scored lower on a pilot knowledge test “grossly overestimated their ability” while higher-scoring students tended in fact to under-estimate theirs. The same effect has been noted among other groups such as chemistry students. In this case, students who’d scored less than 50% on one exam had predicted that they’d get an average of 69%, while their actual average mark was just under 37%. That’s a massive discrepancy. If you don’t know that you’re under-prepared for a test, this is clearly a problem.
People tend to think they know their personality really well. But how well do you know your own personality as it fluctuates from moment to moment? This was explored in a recent study, which found that participants had self-insight into their momentary levels of extraversion and conscientiousness, but weren’t great at rating how agreeable they were being at any given time. As the researchers write: “This apparent self-ignorance may be partly responsible for interpersonal problems”.
However, when it comes to personality in general — your fairly stable, trait levels of extraversion, agreeableness, and so on — there’s some rare good news when it comes to self-insight. According to a large-scale review of data on self-reports of personality vs personality ratings from others, published in Psychological Science in 2018, we’re actually pretty good at judging ourselves in this way. In fact, the work revealed that if anything, we’re harsher judges of our personality than other people are. This was a surprise to the researchers, who’d assumed, based on other work in this field, to find a positive self-bias.
People can get better at self-awareness and self-knowledge. Well, the people around you could be more honest but in general, other people don’t help us to correct our biases. Too often, feedback from employers, family, and friends is vague and overly positive, according to research led by Zlatan Krizan at Iowa State University. “As a society, we make the wrong trade-off by thinking that boosting self-esteem is going to boost performance and that rarely happens,” Krizan says. “That empty praise of telling someone they’re great, or pretending there are not skill differences when there are, can really become a problem.”
As well as seeking honest feedback, and bearing in mind the better-than-average effect, it could also be worth practicing humility. Research published in the journal Self and Identity suggests that people who are more modest about their degree of self-knowledge actually know themselves better
Some people will tell you that they have a clear sense of who they are and that their sense of self is stable over time. Psychologists refer to this as having high “self-concept clarity”. In a new study, Jean Guerrettaz and Robert Arkin shine a spotlight on these self-proclaimed self-knowers. The researchers find that their confidence is often fragile and that somewhat paradoxically, it is people confident in their sense of self whose self-esteem is most undermined by challenging questions about who they are.
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