How well do you know yourself, and how accurate is your perception of your own abilities? Most of us would say we’re fairly accurate judges of ourselves. Intuitively, we feel like no one knows us better than we know ourselves. After all, no one has more information about you than you do, and you’ve spent your whole life getting feedback about yourself in school, work, and interpersonal relationships. You have decades of experience testing out your own strengths and weaknesses, and knowing what you can and can’t do is essential for surviving and succeeding in the world.
But studies show that people consistently overestimate their abilities on just about every dimension that’s subjective and socially desirable. As Dan Gilbert puts it, “If you are like most people, then like most people, you don’t know you’re like most people. Science has given us a lot of facts about the average person, and one of the most reliable of these facts is the average person doesn’t see herself as average.”
Studies show that we overestimate our intelligence, popularity, honesty, confidence, parenting ability, leadership ability, and ethics. A whopping 93 percent of Americans rated themselves as above average drivers. The tendency to adhere to positive illusions is sometimes called the Lake Wobegon effect, named for Garrison Keillor’s fictional Minnesota town where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”
If accuracy is so important to functioning well, why are we so blind to our true natures? Although we do have a desire to accurately understand ourselves, we’re also subject to another, competing motive that’s often more powerful: the desire to have self-flattering beliefs.
Psychologists have argued that positive illusions may in fact be quite helpful. There may be benefits to having an inflated view of the self and believing that you’re more intelligent and attractive than you really are. Overestimating your abilities, for instance, can motivate you to improve even more. If your self-concept accurately reflected your abilities, some psychologists argue, you’d rarely fail, but you also wouldn’t take the extra effort to expand what you’re capable of.
Studies show that people who view themselves in unrealistically positive terms, for instance, are happier and have more friends than their more realistic counterparts. The idea is that if you saw yourself as you really are, you’d be too depressed to function. As Mark Twain once put it, “Know thyself, and then thou wilt despise thyself.”
In addition to overestimating how great we are, we also have a tendency to be overly optimistic about the future, overestimating our odds of experiencing positive events (career success, wealth, longevity and good health), and underestimating our odds of experiencing negative events (cancer, car accidents). Newlyweds, for instance, estimate their odds of divorce at around 0 percent, even though 40 percent will wind up divorcing. But like an exaggerated assessment of your own abilities, optimism can be helpful. Optimists, for instance, are more likely to remarry after a divorce.
Martin Seligman suggests guidelines for when to try to cultivate an optimistic mindset. If you’re planning for a risky and uncertain future where the cost of failure is high, he suggests, optimism may be counterproductive. Likewise, don’t be unrealistically rosy about the future if you’re counseling someone who’s terminally ill or trying to be there for a struggling friend.
But if you’re fighting depression and you’re worried about how you’ll feel in the future, Seligman advises, optimism can help. He also advises deploying optimism about your work and career, your future health, and whenever you’re trying to lead and inspire others. Being optimistic in these situations will not only make you feel better and happier, but will increase your odds of a successful outcome.
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