Think You’re Above Average? Think Again…

Christian Knutson | Comments | July 10, 2013

We’re all engineers, so naturally we think we’re above average when it comes to cognitive abilities, math, spatial reference, and host of other aptitudes that others can only imagine (or not imagine).  By far that makes us above average in the IQ department, and maybe a few other to boot.  Or does it?

The vast majority of us suffer from something called the “above average effect”, “superiority bias”, or “illusory superiority”.  In short, we think we’re better than others because of experience, skill, knowledge, or simply because we’re breathing. Think this is a stretch?  From a number of studies conducted from the early 1970’s through early 2000’s, those who were most confident in their level of expertise or skill should not have been.  These surveys found that one’s perception of ability is often only moderately correlated with actual ability whether it be in the classroom or the workplace.  In a survey of engineers at one company, 42% thought their work ranked in the top 5% among peers.  Mathematics aside, this isn’t possible and it’s the type of belief that can drive someone to stop improving.

Whatever you want to call it, cognitive bias (i.e. thinking we’re better at something when in reality we’re not) affects everyone to some degree or another.  It’s the successful person that understands this, then make allocations for the fact that they’ll bias their performance towards “awesome” in certain undertakings.  The successful person also knows that their intelligence is malleable and can be formed, built, and reduced by their actions.  Knowing that their intelligence is changeable gives them the added insight to more accurately rate their performance.

Why would you want to care about any of this?  Your performance on the job, whether for someone else or as an entrepreneur, requires you to be good at self-assessment in order to grow and adjust to your client’s needs and your environment.  Thinking yourself better than the competition, or your peers, deflates your perceived need to improve. When you give up on improving, you give up on becoming the best version of you that can be.  This ultimately leads to poor performance and a certainty in your ability when it’s really anything but.

One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.”  Bertrand Russell

Chris Knutson, P.E., PMP is a leadership and strategy coach, practicing engineer and program manager. He is co-founder of The Engineering Career Coach, a company providing engineers and engineering companies core skills, leadership, and lifestyle design services enabling them to execute their vision. Chris is a retired U.S. Air Force civil engineer officer with over two decades of active duty service leading engineering organizations and multi-million dollar programs around the globe. Learn more about his work and access more resources at The Engineering Career Coach.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici and