Know Thyself?

Our old pal Plato wrote extensively about his old pal (and teacher) Socrates. He described how Socrates would use the ancient maxim “Know Thyself” as motivation for his dialogues.

Somewhere along the way we seem to have lost this message. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine a time when we were less self-aware than today.

Some examples:

  • 98% of drivers think they are safer than, or as safe as, the average driver.
  • 94% of college professors believe they are above average teachers.
  • 87% of MBA students at Stanford University rated their academic performance as above the median.
  • 72% of school principals in New Jersey rated themselves in the state’s top 10%.
  • 68% of analysts thought they were above average at forecasting earnings.
  • 50% of managers assess themselves to be excellent at managing people, while the results of an objective test showed that in reality only about 14% actually are.
  • 83% percent of Americans believe they are above-average workers.
  • 74% percent of American adults believe they have above-average common sense.

And the list goes on and on. We routinely overestimate our own abilities.

Psychologists have identified a couple of explanations for this. The first is called Illusory Superiority, a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate their positive qualities and abilities and to underestimate their negative qualities, relative to others. It’s also known as the “The Above Average” effect, or “The Lake Wobegon Effect.”

The second is the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which states that “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than knowledge.” In other words, the most incompetent individuals are the ones that are most convinced of their competence.

British philosopher Bertrand Russell put it like this: “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” A more contemporary version is “I’d like to buy that guy for what he’s actually worth and sell him for what he thinks he’s worth.”

Want to see these effects in action? Watch politicians and pundits: they often exhibit a “toxic certainty” that allows no room for doubt or the possibility of alternatives. No wonder that polarization has replaced compromise in the halls of government.

So, whatever happened to the wise advice of Socrates and Plato? Why are we so bad at knowing ourselves? In my career, I’ve experienced many, many self-assessments, such as Myers-Briggs, DISC, Social Style and others. Though they are always interesting, I have always suspected that there is a basic flaw that underpins them all: they rely on my ability to accurately and honestly assess myself. And clearly, most of us aren’t very good at this.

When facilitating self-assessments, I always say that although the self-assessment is good, what is perhaps more important is how others view us. Take the example of the managers who believe they are excellent managers of people. Would their people give the same assessment? Unlikely.

Research confirms my suspicions: complete strangers may be better judges of our abilities that we are.

One study asked participants to estimate the intelligence of a stranger in a tape recording who had just read a weather report, and then walked out of the room. The results? With no additional information than what they had seen on the brief tapes, participants predicted IQ scores almost as well as the taped person’s self rating.

Imagine how much better the predictions would be from friends, family and business associates would be?

The guiding philosophy of Outward Bound is “Not everyone can be great, but everyone can, and is obliged to, get better.” Clearly, we cannot simply rely on our own view of how good we are. We need to find the courage to ask for honest feedback, and strength of character to assess that feedback honestly—especially when it differs from our self-assessment.


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