Americans Flunk Self-Assessment

Research has shown that Americans are bad at assessing their performance and skills. Apparently, part of our national character — optimism — keeps us from interpreting feedback accurately. And our overconfidence results in errors that are sometimes critical.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

In the field of human psychology, researchers find that the data they collect can be highly subjective. And that's this week's Science Out of the Box.

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SEABROOK: It's the season of employee self-evaluation forms. Lots of people fill them out; we do, too, here at NPR. But how good are people really at evaluating themselves?

NPR's Alix Spiegel looks at research which focuses on the problems and perils of self-assessment.

PAUL SKOWRONEK: I'm actually very comfortable with self-assessments.

ALIX SPIEGEL: That's Paul Skowronek, a PR specialist. When he sat down to do his own self-evaluation, it took him four hours to complete. But unlike most people, Skowronek didn't see the evaluation as a burden or as a way to spin his boss by pointing out his many work successes.

SKOWRONEK: I don't think these performance assessments are designed to pump people up, and I think that people inflate them really aren't, you know, doing themselves any big favor so my approach was to sort of answer the questions very honestly, answer the questions - how I really felt about them.

SPIEGEL: So how did Skowronek really feel about his work performance? He felt good. At APCO Worldwide, the company where Skowronek works, there are three broad ratings: Does the employee not reach APCO's high standards, reach APCO's high standards or exceed APCO's high standards. And by Skowronek's estimation, his performance was more or less exemplary.

SKOWRONEK: I think most of mine is that I was pretty much at APCO's high standards. For a majority of the review, there were some instances that I was above that, and there might have been one or two where I wasn't reach APCO's high standards.

SPIEGEL: And Cornell Psychology Professor David Dunning says Skowronek's evaluation of his own accomplishment is fairly typical. At a minimum, Dunning says, people usually see their performances positive. In fact...

DAVID DUNNING: On average, an employee tends to think that they're well above average, well (unintelligible) of everybody else. They have more expertise. They have more leadership skills. They're more idealistic. They're more sophisticated.

SPIEGEL: Dunning knows what he's talking about. He spent a lifetime researching how people perceive their own skills, achievements and competence. And according to Dunning, people express strong confidence in their own abilities in study after study.

DUNNING: And sometimes, this can be quite extreme. So there has been a study done of engineers where they were asked, are you in the top 5 percent of engineers in your company? And over 40 percent of the engineers said, yes, I'm in the top five. And that just can't be.

SPIEGEL: And says Dunning, our overconfidence in our abilities isn't limited to the realm of work.

Motorcyclists typically believe that they are less likely to cause an accident than other motorcycle riders. We think that we will live longer, that we are less likely to acquire a drinking problem, and that we generally get along with people better than the average Joe.

But, says Dunning, there's a dark side to our chronic optimism. It can lead to actual harm. Doctors, confident that they understand an illness, will fail to refer a patient to a specialist. And there's more...

DUNNING: Teenage girls who say they have a lot of knowledge about birth control will tend, over the course of a year, to become more sexually active and are more likely to become pregnant, relative to girls who don't think so much about their sexual knowledge.

And elderly drivers who are brought in for an evaluation, of those who say they are above average drivers, they are four times more likely at the end of the evaluation to be labeled as unsafe as those who are more cautious about their skill.

SPIEGEL: What's odd is that, according to research, our friends and acquaintances are often more clear-sighted about our strengths and weaknesses than we ourselves are. Dunning talks about a study, which asked about surgical residents' views of their surgical skills as measured by a standard board exam.

DUNNING: It turned out that supervisor ratings of a resident predicted whether he or she did well in the exam, rather strongly. Peer ratings predicted rather well, whether or not a surgical resident did well or poorly. But self- ratings weren't correlated at all. It was zero relationship.

SPIEGEL: So why do others see us more clearly than we see ourselves? One reason, says Dunning, is that we're defensive.

DUNNING: We apply a lot of positive spin to evidence we get about ourselves. People obviously want to think pleasant things about themselves. They want to avoid thinking threatening things about themselves, and we're much less likely to do that with the data that we're getting about other people.

SPIEGEL: But, says Dunning, it is important to be able to correct our tendencies towards unrealistic optimism. And the best way to do that is by regularly soliciting honest feedback. Dunning says successful organizations usually institutionalize a process that encourages vigorous critique.

DUNNING: So, for example, if you take a look at biology labs doing research, and you look at the labs that have been most successful, produce the greatest number of breakthrough, one characteristic they tend to have are sessions where researchers present their ideas, and the audience is expected to be skeptical, and the audience is coming from a lot of different perspective, it's not just insiders; it's outsiders.

SPIEGEL: But, says Dunning, this tendency towards unrealistic optimism and self-regard isn't universal.

DUNNING: This really seems to be something that you find in North America and Western Europe. Travel to other shores, like if you go to Japan or you go to China, what you find is that people are much less likely to overestimate themselves. On average, people say that they're average or slightly below average.

SPIEGEL: And those different orientations can affect the way that people go about daily tasks. Dunning talks about a study which compared Japanese and Canadian culture. It found that Canadian students, given a puzzle, which they failed at, usually did not continue to work on the puzzle after the allotted period while Japanese students did.

DUNNING: The accent in Japan appears to be more of an accent on self- improvement. That is, find your weaknesses and then improve upon them. If there's a term used for the North America and Western European culture, it would be more of a self-affirmation culture, which is celebrate the good that is within you.

SPIEGEL: In general, Dunning says, our native orientation towards confidence helps our culture. But this research suggests that as a society, we've overlooked the dark side of optimism.

Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.

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