Our wisdom for others… but not ourselves

I’ve been struck by both the obvious truth and elegant wisdom in a recent piece by David Dunning in The Psychologist about how we display great wisdom about the challenges others face in reaching their goals – yet we don’t apply that same wisdom to ourselves.

If this sounds a little like those studies where a majority of people rate themselves as above average – a statistical impossibility – well, I think it is.

Professor Dunning, of New York’s Cornell University, has conducted several studies on how we predict the behaviour of others, particularly their likelihood to accomplish something. Topics range from buying a daffodil for charity to getting to the polling booth to vote, to staying in a romantic relationship.

Time and again, Prof Dunning finds that we are more likely to delude ourselves that we can do something – but others are less likely to than us. When it comes to others, we will make allowances for the context: their situation, demands on their time, complexity of the task and so on. And we predict – with a high degree of accuracy – that a certain percentage of people will succeed.

But looking in the mirror, we will overestimate our chances of success. When asked why we believe we’re far more likely than others to get the thing done, we attribute this to our personal qualities and character traits, imagine a higher degree of autonomy than we do for others and more alignment of aspirations and behaviours.

So we see those poor ‘other people’ as less likely to succeed, but at least we cut them some situational slack. Whereas we are far more likely to succeed, and the reasons for this are inherent, or what Prof Dunning calls ‘misguided exceptionalism’. And of course, those others are reaching the same ‘other people’ judgements about us – and they’re right.

So what can we do to save ourselves from our own delusions?

Let’s say you’re about to do a major presentation, your first on this scale. Left to your own devices, chances are you will underestimate how long it will take you to prepare, not build rehearsal time into your schedule, inflate your own opinion of your slide creating skills, focus on what you need to say (and not your audience), and a host of other obvious misjudgements.

  1. So first, ask someone who’s already done what you’re about to do. Even better if you can find two or three such people. Ask them for their recipe, their step by step actions to get the presentation just right. Listen very carefully, without editing, to what they say.
  2. Another technique on this theme is to put yourself in the position of advice-giver being asked by someone about to do a major presentation. What wisdom will you share with them? What factors do they need to consider? Carefully note your own advice to the other person.
  3. Now take the advice – both of the experts who’ve been there before and your own in-house expert. You know, the one who only seems to show up for others, who reckons they’re not needed for your situation. Yes, that one.

Read more about Prof Dunning and his work here.

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