93% of us think we are above average

People in general tend to overestimate their abilities in social and intellectual spheres. This is widely known as illusory superiority, or the above average effect, like the residents of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, ‘where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average’.

In a survey of 161 students in Sweden and the US, Ola Svenson found that 93% of the US sample and 69% of the Swedish sample put themselves in the top 50% for driving ability. Similar results have been found in later studies. A study by Zuckerman and Jost showed that people exaggerate their popularity, particularly when compared to their friends.

But the truly incompetent are in another zone altogether, because they are so unaware of what competency involves. This is now known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, after two psychologists — David Dunning and Justin Kruger — that explored it. As they wrote,

When people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.

The pair were inspired by a news story in 1995, when McArthur Wheeler robbed two banks, making no efforts to conceal his identity. When captured later in the day, he said ‘But I wore the juice’. He had convinced himself that rubbing lemon juice on his face would make him invisible to cameras, like the ones in the banks.

What we can learn from Dunning and Kruger’s work is this: those that are more skilled — at reading, or playing chess — develop the metacognitive frameworks for self-assessment and assessment of other’s skills. So, mediocre students are less capable at evaluating their course performance than better students.

And Dunning and Kruger predicted — prior to conducting their research — that the only way to increase an individual’s capacity for better self-assessment was to educate them in the domain in question — whether reading, driving, or social interaction — so they could gain the metacognitive framework that would allow them to understand what competency entails.

They conducted studies that demonstrated this hypothesis: those in the bottom quartile of a logic skills test grossly overestimated their scores, while those from the bottom quartile that received more training had lower overestimations.

An interesting side effect on the Dunning-Kruger effect is that high performers tend to underestimate their ability and test performance relative to peers, failing to realize that their peers do not necessarily share their competence.

And perhaps most important, the incompetent are cursed in the social domain. One common way to learn is to watch the behavior of others, and to build a mental model of what is going on in their heads. This is often called theory of mind, a social sensitivity that the incompetent are blind to. They are less likely to be able to judge competence when seeing it.

The takeaway for us in the domain of business is manifold. First, those that are less competent in some skillset will be less able to judge their own abilities or those of others, and will tend to overestimate them. But even those that are apparently skilled fall into this cognitive sinkhole. Dunning related a tale from a colleague’s research:

One of my favorite examples is a study of the engineering departments of software firms in the Bay Area in California. Researchers asked individual engineers how good they were.

In Company A 32% of the engineers said they were in the top 5% of skill and quality of work in the company. That seemed outrageous until you go to Company B, where 42% said they were in the top 5%. So much for being lonely at the top. Everybody tends to think that they are at the top much more than they really are.

So even highly trained people suffer from the above average effect.

It begs the question of how to help people gain more self-awareness. I believe the most likely path — and perhaps the only one — is for us to stay in the mindset of the beginner, finding and following the lead of those we deem as having high competence. Businesses need to structure formal and informal mentoring systems, so that all can benefit from the insights and feedback of those with greater depth of experience. Of course, those who are have the greatest need for growth and improvement are those suffering most from overestimation of skills and are the least likely to see the skills others have.

The key is to help people think about this as behavior and skills, not ability and character. Otherwise feedback may be perceived as a personal attack instead of recommendations for growth.


Study science and math to get ahead in the future of work, right?

Not at all, argues one professor. Daniel Jelski looks at the trends governing what work will look like in decades to come and arrives at an unpopular conclusion: The best bet is to forgo engineering skills and develop empathy by studying psychology and literature instead.

Infographic: Are mobile devices destroying your body?

Connected mobile devices make life easier, but are our bodies paying too high a price? Eyewear retailer Mezzmer culled a number of datapoints in an infrographic that gives a glimpse into the health complications brought by small screens, speakers and the ergonomics of using handheld computers.

Startup entrepreneurs are ‘arrogant and psychopathic’

The startup world is littered with stories of bad behavior, arguments, bullying and trickery that few people would tolerate in normal life. But German researchers suggest this might not just be a coincidence — and that perhaps it’s crucial to a company’s success.

Overcoming the Isolation of Remote Work

solitudeWe’ve all read the news stories that identify social implications of a world increasingly conducted electronically, rather than in person. It seems that in an environment where individuals and organizations can manufacture themselves new personas, and nothing’s real until we broadcast it across a network of contacts, many web workers are feeling increasingly isolated. Read More about Overcoming the Isolation of Remote Work

Apple Netbook Rumors Gain Momentum Once Again

foxconn-logoIf sheer consumer will alone could ever put a piece of hardware into production, then the Apple (s aapl) netbook would’ve been made a hundred times over by now, and in some ways it has, thanks to DIY hackintosh machines. Rumors of the real thing are gaining steam once again, and at this point I’m beginning to wonder if Apple can afford to break the hearts of their loyal following without sending even more of them into the loving embrace of the Dell (s dell) Mini 9.
The latest rumors come from the Chinese-language tech and business blog the Commercial Times (as translated by DigiTimes), which is reporting that Foxconn Electronics (also known as Hon Hai Precision Industry) has already signed a deal with Apple to put their upcoming netbook into production. Foxconn is already responsible for making the iPhone 3G and potentially components for the upcoming iPhone 3.0 as well, so it makes sense that Apple would go back to them for this type of device if one is indeed in the pipeline.
Added to earlier rumors of a 10-inch touchscreen being manufactured for Apple, the picture that emerges is of a device that might prove a little more expensive than most were hoping for, though at this point Apple has teased desire for a tablet/small form factor device to such an extreme level that people will probably overlook a $200 premium just to get their hands on the thing. I still don’t see them confusing customers by pricing it too closely to the MacBook line, so look for something between $599 and $799, depending on options and upgrades. That would put it close to the Mac mini, but the products differ enough that they could avoid cannibalizing sales.

Psycuity: Using Psychometric Measurement To Build Teams

As web workers are generally spread across countries, timezones, cultures and organizations, creating and applying coherent management to distributed teams is challenging.
Late last year, Celine shared some tips on avoiding conflicts within a teleworking team. Around the same time I came across UK-based “business psychology” consultants, Psycuity, a company that asserts that it can help design better teams through understanding the underlying psychology of individual team members. Could this type of understanding be useful in figuring out how distributed web workers could work together more effectively?
Using psychometric testing and a long pedigree in psychology, Psycuity has codified a lot of the personality types, compatibilities and behaviors we might ordinarily find difficult to measure. Using these measurements, we can make helping more informed decisions about our teams.
After completing a short online questionnaire — it took about 20 minutes — I was called by one of Psycuity’s cofounders, Ian Hudson, who talked me through my test results. Ian had no prior knowledge or understanding of my work or personality, but spent half an hour or so breaking down his analysis of my interpersonal style, thinking style, coping strategies, leadership qualities, influencing styles and where in teams I would best fit. Frankly, I was astonished at Ian’s insights, which he later provided to me as a printed report. They accurately reflected probably around 90-95 percent of my self-image.
Psychometric testing is by no means a new tool for those managing and recruiting personnel, but the Psycuity guys have managed to package and streamline the experience to require minimal input from the test subject, while still providing a rich and very detailed analysis of their capabilities and qualities.
Circling back to Celine’s original thoughts on avoiding conflicts within teams, I wonder if it’s possible to use a company such as Psycuity to predict how well a group of untethered workers will work together. There are some interesting questions to consider:

  • Could Psycuity-style tests help prepare guidelines on how best to coalesce a diverse group of people into an effective team?
  • How would this type of screening be applicable to assess the “fitness” of a coworking community?
  • Can it only really work for people that work together in the same organization — or  would it also be useful for a group of collaborating freelancers.

Individually, I found a great deal of insight into my own behavior, but I’m curious to hear what others think. Can business psychology be used to enhance team spirit between disconnected, untethered, web workers?
Do leave your thoughts in the comments below — I’d love to hear everyone’s views on this.