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18 September, 2006

Every Day, In Every Way...

What does it mean that we all think that we are better than we really are?

I just read an interesting statistic, quoted by Gerry McGovern, that goes: “A study by NFI Research found that 33 percent of senior managers believe that they are receiving significantly more regular communications from both internal and external sources than needed. However, only 3 percent feel that they send significantly more stuff than necessary.” This reminded me of the very similar statistics about people’s driving ability. On the whole, 70% of drivers believe their own skills are better than average. (I’m sure you can spot what is wrong with that statement!)

There is clearly a pattern here – and, in fact, it one that is well-known to psychologists. Wikipedia has it listed as ‘the overconfidence effect’, one of many cognitive biases it lists. (If you have a spare five minutes, you might like to take a look at that list – very sobering indeed!)

In fact, the effect only seems to work for common or easy skills. There is also evidence that most people think their performance is worse than average when it comes to rare events or very difficult skills (like computer programming, or winning a raffle).

Do you recognise yourself here? I certainly do. I know for a fact that I’m a better driver than anyone else on the road (of course, that’s not difficult in Brisbane) and I never win a raffle, ever!

The simple truth is that human beings are not very good at statistical processing. We are easily biased by the restricted set of observations we make (we’ve got a lot more data about ourselves than about anyone else, for example), by recency effects (more recent information carries more weight), the memorability and salience of information (it’s easier to notice and remember other drivers’ stupid mistakes than the far greater number of times when they don’t do anything wrong), and so on.

We like to think of ourselves as perfectly rational and as keen and accurate observers but we are not. The information we store in our heads about the world is biased by the ways we perceive it, by the way we process and store it, and by the ways we retrieve it and use it. If there is so much garbage going into our reasoning processes, it isn’t surprising that a lot of garbage comes out the other end.

So what does it all mean? Well the message I take out of all this is that we can’t – we shouldn’t – trust our own judgements, especially about ourselves. They are liable to be wrong. When it comes to making major life decisions, it is really important that we acknowledge these biases and try to compensate for them. This is as true for me thinking about my driving skills and my email habits as it is for politicians thinking about building a major dam, or interring refugees.

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