My favorite scene in the 1940 movie Fantasia is often referred to as “the sorcerer’s apprentice.” I love this bit of film because it represents a major problem we all face at work.
That issue is a psychological phenomenon called illusory superiority, and it’s the first topic in our series on cognitive biases at work. But back to Mickey Mouse.
If through some travesty of pop culture you’ve never seen Fantasia, here’s what happens. Mickey Mouse is an apprentice to a powerful wizard, who has given the young student the arduous task of carrying water.
After the sorcerer leaves, Mickey quickly decides that he has the chops to make short work of this assignment. He steals the wizard’s cap, waves his arms dramatically, and a mop comes to life. The animated creature begins carrying water for him, and Mickey puts his feet up to relax. (Watch the full clip at disney.com)
After a while, the mouse slips off to sleep. When he wakes up, his creation has gone overboard. It has filled the entire castle with water and is making an enormous mess. In a panic, Mickey grabs a hatchet, but this makes things worse. The sorcerer returns and chastises Mickey for his hubris. It’s worth ten minutes of your time. Watch the segment!
Two Big Words: Illusory and Superiority
The reason Mickey gets into trouble is because he is under the illusion that he has superior talents and abilities. And just like the world’s most famous cartoon mouse, we all have a tendency to think we are smarter, tougher, stronger, and more competent than we actually are.
An article from Live Science highlights some research that demonstrates this phenomenon:
For instance, in a classic 1977 study, 94 percent of professors rated themselves above average relative to their peers. In another study, 32 percent of the employees of a software company said they performed better than 19 out of 20 of their colleagues. And research has found that people overestimate how charitable they’ll be in future donation drives, but accurately guess their peers’ donations.
Illusory superiority goes by a lot of other names: the above average effect, the superiority bias, the leniency error, and for fans of National Public Radio—the Lake Wobegon effect. But no matter what you call it, thinking we have a capacity we don’t actually have is an error. We are evaluating the real world inaccurately.
Why Are We Bad at Self-Evaluation?
To understand the origins of illusory superiority, we need to understand how we make decisions. In general, people who are far from the situation make bad judgments. But even when we are close to the situation, we often do a poor job in sizing things up. Why is that?
One of the main reasons why is drawing a difference between objective and subjective evaluation. If you want to estimate the size of a room or the length of time required for a project, you can use your experience and various tools to find an answer. But if you are trying to decide if you have enough knowledge to close a sale or write a software program or fix a broken pipe—or enough knowledge of magic to animate a mop to carry water—you are likely going with your gut. That’s a much tougher judgment call to make.
A key reason we think we are above average is because it’s beneficial to our species. If we think we can do something that’s actually a little bit outside of our capacity, we’re still likely to try it. That sometimes has disastrous results, but often leads to an unexpected victory. If we always knew what we would get, we would never take a leap of faith.
Using Knowledge of Illusory Superiority to Your Advantage
If you know that all people (including yourself) are likely to think they are above average, what should you do? Here are some tips:
- Be actively realistic. Discuss this bias with others when making plans. Consciously admit that we often bite off more than we can chew.
- Respond by offering padding. If another person gives you a deadline of 30 days, suggest a 45 day deadline “in case anything comes up.”
- Embrace failure. When people think they can do more but don’t succeed, celebrate! Let them know that failure is part of the process.
- Assume improvement is possible. If you think you’re already better than most, you’re less likely to think you can get better. Always seek education and work to get better!
So remember, you are not above average in every category. You know and can do more in some areas, but not in all areas. Accept that we all fall victim to the illusion of superiority. But, do what you can to do your best.