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Sunday, December 17, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Does your mirror lie?

Seattle Times staff reporter

David Dunning played the cello seriously as a teen — and he thought himself quite talented.

Then Dunning heard a recording by Jacqueline du Pré, the late English cellist who was renowned for playing with a brilliant ferocity. "So that's what you do with that instrument," a chastened Dunning, now professor of psychology at Cornell University, recalls thinking. "I had no clue that you could do that with the cello."

Dunning's epiphany was a classic example of a phenomenon familiar to social psychologists: flawed self-assessment. People — as researchers have documented again and again — systematically misjudge their competence, virtues, relevance and future actions. And those erroneous views can, researchers say, endanger health, ruin relationships, dent finances and cause other misery.

People generally consider themselves smarter, luckier, better looking and more important than they really are. They regard themselves as exceptional and believe that they will avoid the divorces, premature deaths or weight gains that befall everyone else.

Self-serving biases permeate people's perceptions. They claim credit for good deeds and successes but shift blame to others for their failures. A Toronto motorist captured this tendency on an insurance form: "A pedestrian hit me and went under my car."

"Most of us have a good reputation with ourselves," says David Myers, a professor at Hope College in Holland, Mich., who wrote the textbook, "Social Psychology."

Blissful incompetence

People's high self-regard tends to be unjustified, social psychologists say. The link between people's personal estimations and the not-so-flattering reality is sometimes perilously weak.

Researchers at Australia's University of New England reviewed 128 studies in 1982 and calculated that people's perceptions of their intelligence versus their actual performance on tests and academic tasks had an average correlation of less than .3. A perfect correlation is 1.

In another study, in 1977, 94 percent of college professors ranked themselves as above average, even though by definition only 50 percent can be in the top half.

The least skilled people have the most exaggerated sense of their abilities. Dunning and a colleague conducted several studies to test theories about incompetence and inflated self-assessment.

Forty-five Cornell undergraduates took tests on logical reasoning and estimated how their test scores would compare to that of their classmates. The students who performed in the top quartile lowballed their actual scores and rankings. But those in the bottom quartile were grossly off mark. They misjudged that their scores would fall at the 62nd percentile instead of the actual 12th percentile.

Conclusion: Incompetent people are doubly handicapped because they lack not only the requisite skills but the ability to recognize their own deficiencies.

Intuition is dead wrong

People's self-perceptions fail in other ways, too. Often they are guilty of unwarranted optimism. People believe themselves invulnerable to bad fortunes, whether picking losers in the stock market or catching sexually transmitted diseases. Marriage-license applicants correctly guessed in a survey published in Law and Human Behavior that half of marriages end in divorce. Yet most of the 137 would-be betrothed put chances of their own marital dissolution at zero percent.

People are egocentric. They think their actions, absences and contributions are much more conspicuous than they actually are. Social psychologists have dubbed this the "spotlight effect." Students ushered into rooms while wearing T-shirts emblazoned with a large photo of Barry Manilow (attire researchers verified most college students consider mortifying) guessed that twice as many of their classmates would take note as actually did. Other people are more oblivious to our appearances, emotions and behaviors than we imagine. Stewing silently against a colleague? Chances are he barely has a clue.

People also think their virtues uncommon but their failings typical. Tax cheaters believe everyone else cheats, too. An infatuated person, Myers says, assumes the other reciprocates the feelings. People who drink heavily but buckle up in the car bolster their self image by underestimating how many other people use seat belts. As the Talmud says, "We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are."

Consequences in life

Some social psychologists argue that shortcomings in self-assessment in laboratories are inconsequential or artificial. But researchers amassed persuasive data showing that people — at least North Americans — commit systematic errors in perceptions that can jeopardize their health, sabotage careers and even world peace.

People with unrealistic optimism are less likely to say they intend to get a flu shot. They are more likely to chance high-risk sex or disregard doctors' orders. They also risk wasting money on gym memberships by overestimating how often they will work out, Dunning said, or by miscalculating how carefully they will monitor their cellphone minutes.

Grades, too, can suffer. Children who can realistically gauge their own learning do better on exams. Fifth- and seventh-graders in an experiment published in Journal of Experimental Child Psychology bore this out. They devoted less time to easy booklets and focused their studies on the difficult ones. First- and third-graders, in contrast, underestimated the effort required to memorize the more difficult booklets and split their attention evenly among the booklets. The result: the younger students fared worse than the older students on subsequent tests.

Employees with flawed self-views might reject their supervisor's valid, but negative, reviews. Then they feel cheated with their "paltry" raises. Husbands and wives separately tallying how much each contributes to household chores produce estimates that add up to more than 100 percent.

Inflated self-views aren't all bad. They can buffer people from stress and depression and motivate them to keep after challenging tasks, Myers says. But on the whole, Myers contends, errors in perception bear blame for much of life's disharmony.

"It's at the root of many divorces, as both partners see themselves as contributing more and benefiting less than their counterparts," Myers says. "And it's endemic to many conflicts, where each side thinks its motives are virtuous."

Reality check

So, how do you get a true, or at least truer, picture of yourself? One way may be a "self-regulation" model professor Glenn Regehr and colleagues at the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine are promoting. It involves medical professionals seeking formalized feedback from peers, patients and standardized tests to identify their practice habits and outcomes. Whether physicians are as skilled as they assume may be less material than whether they know when to ask for help — much as Regehr says poor spellers avoid trouble by knowing when to consult a dictionary.

External feedback is critical because recognizing your own biases is intrinsically difficult.

"It's like trying to scratch an itch in the middle of your back," said Chip Heath, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University. "You can do it, but it's easier for someone else to help you out."

Heath has examined ways that companies and organizations can compensate for individual biases. People tend to form views based on limited and biased information (it rains only after I wash my car) or they over-rely on vivid but minor evidence (a glowing recommendation from someone who barely knows the applicant). Companies can counterbalance those tendencies, Heath says, by assembling broad, objective, relevant facts to form decisions.

The technique works for individuals, too, Dunning says. Frank feedback from spouses, children, bosses or colleagues can yield enlightenment for those secure enough to seek it.

If they concur that your humor is insipid, your body is unfit for skinny jeans and your musicianship is merely middling, Dunning says "you might consider the possibility that it might be true.

"The road to honest self-insight runs through other people."

Kyung Song: 206-464-2423 or ksong@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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