October 25, 2005

Study Examines Unreal Expectations

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It has happened to nearly everyone: Your professor hands back a midterm. The grade is substantially lower than you predicted when leaving the room on exam day.

You wonder why your assumption was amiss.

Dozens of studies suggest that many people hold inflated views about their knowledge, expertise, and character. Overestimations about self often seriously impact decisions and can lead to dangerous outcomes. A recent review article in Psychological Science in the Public Interest by Prof. David Dunning, psychology, examined this phenomenon and shed light on the root of the problem.

Dunning, along with his co-authors, Prof. Chip Heath, organized behavior, Stanford University, and Prof. Jerry Suls, psychology, University of Iowa, looked at the issue of how successfully people can predict behaviors and outcomes, specifically in the areas of health, education and the workplace. Dunning’s article pulled together hundreds of previous studies on self-assessment.

“People don’t know themselves all too well,” Dunning said.

According to The Cornell Chronicle, Dunning said, “People tend to believe their personal risk of becoming ill from food poisoning, SARS or HIV, for example, is lower than other peoples’ risks. Students consistently think they’ve done better on exams than they really have, and surgical residents think they can perform procedures much better than their supervisors think the residents can.”

“Likewise, from the office cubicle to the executive boardroom, people tend to hold overly inflated self-views that are only modestly related to actual performance. Often, other people – subordinates, peers and superiors – can make much better judgments about others than themselves,” he said.

Several educational methods may help reduce feelings of overconfidence. Dunning explained that intense training sessions – the most common method of teaching – breed overconfidence. If someone is taught how to swing a golf club over a span of five hours, the person will leave the session able to swing the golf club, quite confident in his golf club swinging abilities. Unfortunately, after a few days, most of that knowledge will disappear.

Dunning says it is better to teach material over a longer period of time. Although spreading out material over time makes the learning process more difficult and diminishes confidence, the person ultimately emerges with a higher skill set. The consequences of not knowing how to swing a golf club are far from serious; however, for skills such as operating a car or flying an airplane, the “process is recipe for potential disaster,” Dunning said.

People often overestimate themselves when making health-related decisions, too. Take, for example, blood pressure.

“There are no overt clues to determine your blood pressure,” Dunning said. Still, overconfidence may cause a person to overestimate his ability to perceive cues, leading him to take medication without a physician’s input. Tampering with medications can have serious implications.

Workplace business leaders are susceptible to exhibiting behaviors driven by overconfidence.

“When CEOs are trying to merge with another company, they tend to offer a price that presents a rosy picture of how well they can run a business,” Dunning said. On the day of the merger, however, stocks tend to drop while people on the outside of the business “vote” with their money. Dunning suggests that CEOs hire independent, outside consultants in order to gain unbiased perspectives.

Dunning has conducted extensive research in the field of self-assessment. His most recent book, Self Insight: Road Blocks and Detours on the Path to Knowing Thyself, evaluated the scientific evidence behind theories of inflated confidence and studied why accurate self-evaluation is difficult.

“I looked at when self-assessments are accurate, and what obstacles prevent people from being accurate. People tend to have views of character that don’t match with their behavior,” Dunning said. The book presents research conducted by Dunning himself and various other experts in the field of psychology.

“Achieving accurate self-judgment is inherently difficult, and many question whether accurate self-evaluations are even possible,” Dunning was reported as saying in The Cornell Chronicle. “Nevertheless, there are tools that people do have at their disposal to evaluate themselves, but they tend to ignore them … Using your peers as mentors can be very useful because everybody has a different set of competencies.”

Group decision making may help avoid making judgments based on self-inflated assumptions; however, Dunning stressed that groups must remember to consider independent feedback from the outside when arriving at important decisions in order to avoid situations such as groupthink.

Archived article by Jessica Liebman
Sun Staff Writer