Monday, November 23, 2009

Illusory superiority

I am a decent cook. Actually, I am an above average cook. I don't do it a ton- my wife (God bless her) does much more than me. But when I actually do head into the kitchen to make something, it usually turns out to be pretty good.

At least that is what I have for a long time believed about myself.

Then Sept. 23 rolled around and that entire thought was blown to pieces.

Before I finish the above story, I need to delve into something called "illusory superiority." This is a bias that exists in each one of our minds that makes us either overestimate what we see as desirable qualities in ourselves or underestimate the degree of what we see as negative qualities. This defense mechanism creates a belief in our mind that we are better at those things we wish we were good at than we really are. A classic example of this was a study done by a researcher named Swenson in 1981 that surveyed Swedish and American drivers about their driving ability. What they found was pretty impressive- nearly all (93%) of the American drivers thought that they were in the top 50% of drivers with regards to driving skill and safety. Swedish drivers were not quite as generous but still thought they were better than they probably were (69% placed themselves in the top 50%). With regards to safety as an individual measurement, 88% of the US group and 77% of the Swedish group put themselves in the top 50%.

This effect of illusory superiority has been demonstrated time and again and brings us to a very uncomfortable conclusion- none of us are as good as we think we are in nearly every aspect of our lives. For instance, I have been involved in 4 car accidents as a driver, three in which the car I was driving was totalled (one of the contributors to this blog and one of its frequent readers might remember one of these events). Yet, despite this, I would not only say that I am in the top 50% of safe drivers out there, but I would also probably say that I am in the top 10% of safe drivers on the road.

This brings me back to the story of Sept. 23. As I mentioned above, I have always thought of myself as an above average cook. On Sept. 23, my wife's birthday, I decided to make her a cake. A german chocolate cake to be exact. I had visions of this cake turning out perfectly and me winning years of "Good husband points" as a result. But the truth of the matter was not quite so pretty. The cake, to put it mildly, sucked. I forgot to put icing between the two layers of the cake so it literally started to fall apart about 10 minutes after I iced it. To make matters worse, this was not a cake made from scratch. This was actually a box cake and it practically made itself, or would have if I knew what in the world I was doing. In the end, it looked like a bear had eaten a bag of shredded coconut and then crapped on a cake platter. Here are two pictures- see for yourself.

My wife was great about this. I actually acumulated all the necessary karma points but she did email the above picture to all of her friends. I would have, too, if I were her.

So this above experience has caused me to try to take an accurate assessment of my life. I am trying to get outside of the illusory superiority that exists in my brain and see if I can identify where I really stand on certain skills. Below is a list of aspects of life that people often think that they are better than they really might be. After much reflection, the first ranking is what I now think is an accurate assessment of where I truly stand on these skills. The rankings in parentheses are actually where I used to believe I stood (100% being the best in the world, 0% being the worst).

Athletics: 40%- this is difficult. I think that I am a top 20% runner but yet I am a bottom 20% basketball/football player. Since most people's idea of sports is weighted towards team sports rather than things like running, I give myself a less then 50% vote- (80%)
Sense of humor/wit: 80%- (70%)
Driving: 95%- (40%)
My skill at my profession: 90%- (75%)
Looks: 50%- (50%)
Poker playing ability: 25%- (25%)
Photography: 80%- (50%)

Please feel free to comment on your own assessment of yourself or your assessment of my assessment of myself.


Anonymous said...
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Coovo said...

You just never know what anonymous is going to come up with.

Matt, so when you reflected on your talents a lot of your scores went higher. I thought you were trying to get away from illusory superiority (I can't believed I spelled it right without looking)?

Without ranking my scores, I believe I posses whatever the opposite of illusory superiority. I always think that people are better than me at everything. Like just the other day when the space shuttle took off, I was like, "Man, I bet everyone on there is a better astronaut than me." I felt like crap for the rest of the day.

Doughboy said...

You're right, I screwed that up and put all the info in backwards. Thanks for ruining any shred of writing sense of superiority that I had.

Ryan said...

Doughboy, hilarious post. You have literally hit the ground running as this is only your second post and I laughed several times.

I would also probably ask how you classify your running ability? Is it only against other runners or is it against everyone else? If it's everyone else, I'd say you're probably 99%.

But this is also an interesting post. I tend to be somewhere in between Coovo and Doughboy. I'm sure I over estimate some of my talents and I know I underestimate many as well, since I am often shocked by anything resembling a compliment. "Really? Well, thanks. Are you drunk?"

I also remember that fateful night in Soulard with Johnny in the backseat, after we already had locked the keys in the car. What's the statute of limitations on open container for an underage passenger?

"20 bucks I'll who up in court and say it wasn't your fault."

"No thanks."

"Shiiiii, man, you boys MUST be from the county."

Never saw that guy or that white van again.

Doughboy said...

Ryan, thanks for the compliments- as you said in your post, are you drunk? Just kidding.
I don't think that it is fair to compare myself against everyone else with regards to running. Sure, I bet I can beat more than 80% of infants and quadrapalegics out there but it doesn't seem keeping in the spirit of the question. Thus, I am comparing myself to those who run for fitness.
Now, that is just for the running issue. Other aspects, like the "looks" category includes everyone because we all have them. Some of us are just more gifted than others. You don't know how humbling it is to have a name like "Doughboy" in high school and still only be the second most attractive Doughboy in your school. Damn that Jimmy D and his good looks.

John said...

I am not even close to Coov on this one I generally think I am much better at things than I really am. I would be shocked if I was in the top 70% at anything while I generally think I am in the top 90% at everything.

Roller said...

Hilarious post! I would say one of the qualities I over-estimate in myself is time management. I try to be efficient, which often leads to me believing that I can fit a task or tasks into a certain time period. I get the tasks done, but I'm late for the next thing.

Ryan said...

Doughboy, I still cover my eyes every time I scroll down through your post. That cake just looks, well, you already said it.

I advise you not to try to cook curry or mole next.