“Nearly 80% of people believe they are in the top 50% in emotional intelligence.”

Peter Salovey

Most of you that read my Blog regularly know that we raise guide dog puppies for the blind for a great organization called Guide Dogs of America.  We are now raising our sixth puppy named Enzo who is a beautiful black lab who is only 8 months old.

When they graduate from their technical training, they truly go on to become the “eyes” for someone who is sight impaired. Most of the leaders I coach (and most of us in general) could also use a guide dog from time to time to “see” how we impact others and how our behaviors are experienced and perceived.

The “no clue” gene is something that all of us possess to some extent. There are at least three reasons that some people have distorted views of their strengths and development areas.

Positive Illusions

A triad of “positive illusions” was first introduced by UCLA Professor Shelly Taylor ((Taylor, S.E. & Brown, J. (1988). “Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health”. Psychological Bulletin 103, 193–210)).  These “illusions” include: 1) People tend to inflate the perceptions of their skills and abilities; 2) People typically exaggerate their perceived control over work and life events; and 3) People generally express unrealistic optimism about their future.

What is interesting, as Sedikes & Gregg (2003) point out, most individuals report being less prone to each of these three “positive illusions” even after they are informed about them.

Four important points come out of the research and work around positive illusions:

  1. If self-enhancement (overestimating) is conceptualized as seeing one’s self generally more positively than others, then the outcomes (performance, health, career, and life success) are frequently more favorable, but if it is defined as having higher self-ratings than others who provide feedback (self-rater congruence), then the outcomes are frequently less than favorable.
  2. Coaches should keep in mind that people generally tend to forget negative feedback about themselves–specifically in areas that matter most to them and typically remember performing more desirable behaviors than other raters can later identify (Gosling, John, Craik & Robins, 1998).  It is also important to point out that people usually define their strengths based on traits they already possess and define their developmental opportunities more in terms of traits they lack at the moment (Dunning, Heath, & Suls, 2004).
  3. Research suggests that people not only compare themselves to others but to how they used to be in the past.
  4. In general, individuals evaluate their current and future selves as better than their past selves (Wilson & Ross, 2001).

Dunning-Kruger Effect

Have you ever noticed that often times the most incompetent people have the highest opinions of themselves?  There’s an app for that…..

The Dunning-Kruger effect ((Ehrlinger, J., Johnson, K., Banner, M., Dunning, D. & Kruger, J. (2008). “Why the unskilled are unaware: Further explorations of (absent) self-insight among the incompetent” (PDF). Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 105, 98–121)) describes a cognitive bias in which people perform poorly on a task, but lack the meta-cognitive capacity to properly evaluate their performance. Kruger and Dunning initially tested Cornell University undergraduates’ self-assessment of logical reasoning skills, grammatical skills, and humor.

After being shown their test scores, the subjects were again asked to estimate their own rank.  Across four studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd. Meanwhile, people with true ability tended to underestimate their relative competence. Participants who found tasks to be relatively easy erroneously assumed, to some extent, that the tasks must also be easy for others.

Dunning and Kruger often refer to a “double curse” when interpreting their findings: People fail to grasp their own incompetence, precisely because they are so incompetent. And since, overcoming their incompetence would first require the ability to distinguish competence form incompetence people get stuck in a vicious cycle. The researchers attributed this to the fact that the individuals who were worst at performing the tasks were also worst at recognizing skill in those tasks (i.e., inability to recognize own incompetence). As a result, such people remain unaware of their incompetence and accordingly fail to take any self-improvement measures that might rid them of their incompetence (unconscious incompetence).

Better than Average Effect

Illusory superiority is a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate their positive qualities and abilities and to underestimate their negative qualities, relative to others.  This bias is commonly referred to as the “better than average effect” and it appears to be a consistent appraisal over a wide range of skills and abilities such as:

  • Svenson (1981) 93% of a U.S. survey sample rated their driving skills in the top 50%
  • Nearly 80% of people believe they are among the top 50% most emotionally intelligent people (Salovey, 2006)
  • In a survey of faculty at the University of Nebraska, 68% rated themselves in the top 25% for teaching ability (Cross, 1997)
  • In ratings of leadership ability, 70% of the students put themselves above the median.
  • In ability to get on well with others, 85% put themselves above the median, and 25% rated themselves in the top 1% (College Board, 1976)

Some good news about this effect though—if the task is very difficult or challenging, we might actually see the opposite when we underestimate our true ability ((Moore, D.A. (2007). Not so above average after all: When people believe they are worse than average and its implications for theories of bias in social comparison. Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes 102, 42–58)).

Enzo is doing great so far–keep you posted on his progress over the next 4 months while we raise him before we turn him in for his technical training in hopes of being the guide for someone who is blind….Be well….


Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

Posted in Engagement, Leadership Development, Relate

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  1. Susan Bloch says:

    Really enjoy your blog but more importantly, I love this puppy!!

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