A teenage violinist applies to music school based on her notions of her musical virtuosity. A military officer volunteers to command a dangerous mission because he is confident about his bravery, leadership and grace under pressure. A healthy elderly woman decides not to get a flu shot because she feels that it is unlikely she will fall ill.
Over their lifetimes, people base thousands of decisions on the internal pictures they hold of their own skills, knowledge, personality and moral character. During decades of research, psychologists have examined just how accurate these self-perceptions are in a wide variety of tasks and circumstances. In study after study, researchers find that self-ratings of aptitude hold only a tenuous to modest relation, at best, with actual performance--indeed, other people can often foresee an individual's outcomes better than that person can. Individuals also overrate themselves. As a consequence, the average person claims to be "above average" in skill--a conclusion that, in aggregate, defies statistical possibility. He or she also overpredicts the likelihood of engaging in desirable behaviors and achieving favorable outcomes, furnishes excessively optimistic estimates of when he or she will complete future projects, and reaches judgments with too much confidence. The findings have important consequences for health, education and the workplace [see boxes on pages 23, 24 and 26-27].
This article was originally published with the title Picture Imperfect.