Humans Are Lousy At Self Evaluation

We tend to trivialize / undervalue capabilities in other people that we do not possess.

You may have over-sophisticated the rather banal "attribution error" that's so foundational in cog-psych. *blink* You didn't know we'd busted out of behaviourism? Uh. Yaa. We have. Cognition is all-o'-that. "Cognitive ergonomics" ... no? Geesch, that was mundane vernacular 20 years ago. No, not kidding. Like SGML. Meh. -- BenTremblay

For example, creative people often think little of (and get dismissed by) efficient administrators. Now you know the real reason why I hate my boss. :)

"Imaginative people perennially underrate efficient ones." This was an observation made in the story of a feud between famous scientists in a race to find a polio vaccine, the story of Jonas Salk as reported in

I'm not sure the article paints that conclusion. Rather, it's saying that the best spokesperson (communicator) is not always the best researcher, and vise versa, and that both have their place. Salk's team appeared to be well-balanced that way. A good administrator can insulate techies from the political storms and clutter, while a bad one puts them in the middle of it too often.

True techies tend to want to use "credit" to get access to bigger "toys" - bigger experiments and projects, not accolades for accolade's sake. Managers who understand this can have the best of both: visible credit for themselves and bigger toys for the techies that help them elevate their "tech" status.

The opposite can be true as well. I find that I am most impressed by people who are strong in areas where I am weak... in other words, possibly undervaluing traits that I do possess.

The KeirseyTemperamentSorter? helps a lot in recognizing ones owns capacities & propensities and relating to the capacities of the other 15 types. It is 70 alternatives in a book or on the web, done in few minutes resulting one of 16 types. You are getting instant useful results.

I was reading HowToWinFriendsAndInfluencePeople when it occurred to me that people are inherently horrible at evaluating their own worth and skills in relationship to others. This may result in over-evaluations, under-evaluations, and just plain confusion. People who might otherwise be brilliant evaluators just plain suck when it comes to applying those to themselves (or perhaps to close friends). There is just a huge objectivity block inborn in our heads when we attempt to turn our mental evaluators on ourselves. It is like being tone-deaf only when we ourselves sing.

For instance, Jonas Salk had the knack for picking good people for his projects, but he rarely gave them any public credit, feeling they were mere lab technicians and that the results were from his own brilliance. That is not a case of UnskilledAndUnawareOfIt, because obviously he was brilliant. Same problem, but worse, with Edison, which played no small part in causing his feud with Tesla.

But the connection between egoists and self-evaluation is not made clear here.

It is just an anecdote of a mismatch in otherwise bright people.

Don't trust any comment that starts with some variant of "It's just".

This can't be a hard-and-fast rule. Otherwise, none of us would be able to grow unless someone else told us precisely where and in what way we needed to grow. Most of us grow ourselves simply by learning more about the world around us. In other words, we are UnskilledAndUnawareOfIt, but able to become skilled, able to become aware, thus able to become competent to judge ourselves and self-correct.

Note also that each of us has our own natural strengths, consonant with his personal thought process and communication style (see MyersBriggsTypes). Each of us also has his own natural weaknesses. A single person can be brilliant in one area and exceptionally weak in another. It's very possible that Salk's behavior was a symptom of this type of mismatch, a variation of which exists in each of us. Usually, as we grow older, we learn to operate competently using styles that are unnatural to us. Therefore, this mismatch is also an instance of UnskilledAndUnawareOfIt.

That makes assumptions about individual goals. Not everyone is interested in learning to "operate competently" in new ways; it's common for some to simply be rigid, and others have a mind set that permanently blocks perception of a lack in the first place, for instance, if they glorify the situation that others perceive as a lack of competency, as in Thomas Edison.

Which situation? Please clarify.

The lesser known Edison

A little about Edison, including [Edison] "was an uninhibited egotist"

An online book about Tesla (long, single page)

Briefly, Edison was a trial and error tinkerer with a very large staff of assistants, who championed direct current (DC), Tesla was a mathematical physicist by training who championed alternating current (AC). Tesla worked briefly for Edison, then they became vehement competitors. Although Edison has always been far more famous than Tesla, Tesla's judgement was correct, and AC is primarily what is in use today worldwide for the power grid, for generators, motors, fluorescent lights, and even the incandescent light that Edison invented.

Edison is famous for the quote that "genius is 99% percent perspiration and 1% inspiration", and although that's reasonable advice ("work hard"), it seems to be more literally true of Edison, whereas Tesla seems to be the real article, a true creative genius in every sense, in addition to being industrious.

Edison's real invention was the commercial research lab. He developed a system for generating patentable, marketable information. -- last edit by

I printed a copy of this page to show to my colleagues as an example of collaboration. His immediate comment was the page is hard to read. Well I added (and rearranged) words on this page; what can you expect?

You're neglecting the simple fact that wiki pages follow certain norms of layout, etc, that are very unfamiliar to most people, and take some getting used to. The fact that they thought it was hard to read shows only that they are unaccustomed to wiki pages. Now, there are a lot of badly written, hard-to-follow wiki pages, but this one seems more or less ok so far.

This is true, as well as the fact that wiki pages as initially written are badly laid out by (the lack of) design. They can be refactored, but for a non-participant the originals are hard to read.

I should mention that a number of wiki regulars actually have strong communication and writing skills. Not all do, but such skills are not completely lacking in all engineers and programmers. Stereotypes are not completely reliable.

Maybe the basic problem is navigation, it's hard for us to understand our position and to move in the direction we want. The position we seek is often on a knowledge scale (newcomer ... expert) or in the social situation (visitor ... guest ... regular), but there are other coordinate systems as well. Not knowing about our exact position and those of the people we meet online, we are lost in communication. Are we in the position to teach or being taught? Without exact position coordinates we also don't know what direction to take to achieve a goal. What are we lacking? Some ideas, just funding, more work, a better license, partners? It's no wonder that we can't judge it and that we like it when others tell us that we are on the right way - even it is just a friendly lie. People are born HumansNotNavigators?. -- HelmutLeitner

Perhaps there are some frame of reference issues, but there also seem to be elements of "ego protection". Humans have fragile egos and we tend to protect them with half-truths, often without realizing it. It is almost as if when we evaluate others, the evaluator systems are allowed to work fairly unencumbered. However, when evaluating ourselves, there are layers of bureaucracy that pop up to become involved such that it is hard to introspect the process. Mother/Father Nature just made that part really complicated. There are just more GateKeepers around our self-perception than our perception of others. More layers may also mean there is more that can go wrong. -- top

EverythingIsRelative Perspective

I think part of the problem is that the criteria people use may also be relative. For example, a survey once showed that something like 75% of people surveyed believed they were a "better than average" driver. That clearly looks like a contradiction that implies that people are not objective on self-evaluation. However, an alternative explanation may be that their driving habits fit their own definition of "better driver". They may indeed be "better than average", but only in terms of their pet criteria for "good driver". Thus, the survey is not really contradictory, as it may at first seem. The problem (at least) with the survey is that it fails to hold the criteria for "good driver" constant.

For example, somebody with fast reflexes may be able to drive like a maniac, irritating everyone else on the road. However, they may still have a slightly below-average accident rate.

On the opposite end may be a "granny" driver who is as slow as molasses. The slow pace may reduce accidents, but makes a lot of people late for work and appointments. If you count only accidents, then the slow pace wins. If you count frustration and lost time, then it won't. Otherwise, the speed limit would be 10mph (US).

I have encountered this personally. Two of us techies were both in charge of producing ad-hoc reports and marketing data sets (for junk mail and spam). We were permitted to use basically one tool that was little more than an SQL editor with a TableBrowser. I fealt boxed in as SQL lacked sufficient abstractions by itself such that 70% of my time was working around SQL's limits or bulkiness. (See MisuseOfSql for more. Also, if good views or data-warehouses were created then we wouldn't be dealing with "raw" tables nearly as much. But for decisional/political reasons, that was not available.)

The other guy, on the other hand, was an ultra-fast typer and fast editor such that he didn't seem to mind the repetitious typing and massive copy-and-paste, even thriving on it (he had kind of a nervous personality that required constant motion). See ClerkTurnedProgrammer. From his perspective, I was a lousy worker because I was slow (compared to him) at retyping similar SQL over and over again; and from my perspective, he was a not-so-hot worker because he resisted abstractions that could have reduced the need for lots of typing and run-on spaghetti SQL. My abstractions were untested and he didn't want to bet the status quo on my suggestion that abstraction can help. I'll readily admit that GoodAbstractionRequiresExperimentation.

My proposed solution would have mixed a scripting language with SQL and the use of a "local" database such as MySql or SqLite to offload some of the work from the server and split big jobs into multiple small ones to help with testing and reuse. Plus I had ideas for some tools that would let users get much of their own data/reports. He didn't have much experience writing front-ends. I left the company because either I would go mad at the repetition, or automate myself out of a job if allowed to automate more. I admired his skill at bending SQL to his will, but it was like somebody who could mow the lawn by using tweazers like mad on caffeine. Admirable, but wasteful. Buy a damned lawn-mower. Why the managers didn't allow more tools, I never really found out, but got the evil eye for asking or even hinting.


There are studies that demonstrates an inverse correlation between confidence and competence.

"Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments"

I think it generally agrees with the common observation that the most competent people tend to be somewhat insecure. Insecurity is one of the strongest motivators.

George W. Bush is surprisingly nonchalant considering all the heavy issues surrounding him.

People are bad at evaluating people, period. HadTheLastWord?

Well, it just seems worse when it comes to oneself. Problems of ego, personal fears, self-doubt, and personal hang-ups become factors that are not as strong a part of evaluating other people such that there are more variables that must be factored out.

Yes, though the previous statement is true, the statement has the problem that SelfManagement responsibilities are diminished by generalization.

I've been reading "Super Crunchers", a book about statistical analysis used for large-scale decision-making processes. One conclusion is that when there are sufficient "codified" factors to measure against, statistical techniques such as regression usually outperform domain experts. It describes how studies suggest that people tend to glom on to a few factors early on and hold dear to and magnify their importance relative to other factors. This is why they can't "beat the machine". It is a good source of citations of studies that illustrate human judgment bias (although the book itself doesn't get in depth into specific studies.). The bias seems to increase at a non-linear rate per factor added. Thus, complexity seems to magnify our biases.

Empirical evidence confirms this: the horrendous auditions on American/Pop Idol when they are worse than any karaoke singer yet think they can win the show.

That only shows that some humans are lousy at self evaluation. Or perhaps that you've unrealistic expectations for 'any karaoke singer'.

See Also: BlameYourselfFirst, SelfishGeneExtended, MentalModelOverExtrapolation

CategoryPsychology, CategorySkills

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