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Embracing Average: Why Honest Self-Assessment is Important in Both Individual and Societal Contexts

Being 'average' is not only mathematically inevitable, it's something to be embraced.

Mathematically speaking, averages are neutral central or typical values in a set of data. However, in today's competition-based culture, being "average" is often viewed with disdain. Murray State professor of psychology, Michael Bordieri, Ph.D., visits Sounds Good to discuss why being average is nothing to look down on.

In today's culture of social media, educational and professional competition, and the stigma around being "basic," it's easy to be uncomfortable with the thought of being 'average.' "[But] at least it would be a more honest attitude. If we think about human attributes and things we can be good at or not, across the board, most of us are average," Bordieri explains. "It's important to note that that doesn't mean average in anything, we probably all have areas we excel in and areas we have challenges in. Yes, there are some extraordinary individuals who kind of are above average across lots of different domains, but that isn't the norm. Most of us are, by the nature of what statistics are and how we measure things, most of us will be average at most things." 

"For the most part, average is, well, the most common ability level. But what's interesting is, that's not what we think. So there's our actual ability, which we know if we measure anything, most people will by definition be average. But our perception of our ability tends to skew in one direction. We tend to think we're better at things than we actually are," Bordieri says. "In fact, this effect has a name. It was discovered by David Dunning and Justin Kruger in 1999. It looked at this idea of what we now call the Dunning-Kruger effect." 

In this study, "they took undergraduate students, and they had them do a variety of tasks. They did some logical reasoning, they identified errors in English grammar, and they actually had them sort of measure their sense of humor and ability to tell jokes and be funny. They gave them each a standardized test in those three areas, and they asked the students to rank how they thought they did -- what was their perceived ability. They then gave them their feedback, 'you got this number right,' and then they said 'well, now that you know how many you got right out of twenty, where do you think you stand relative to your classmates?' What we found is that there were lots of errors. People that performed at the very bottom, the bottom 25 percent of performers...they thought they were above average. So much so that the people at the very bottom, the 12th percentile - bottom ten or so percent - thought they were in the 60s. [They] thought they were better. Not only average, but high average relative to their peers...'this must be really tough, I'm still doing just fine.'" 

Bordieri explains that while the Dunning-Kruger effect can be indicative of less intelligent individuals overestimating their abilities, this phenomenon also shows how above-average individuals tend to underestimate themselves. "The folks who do really well show somewhat of the opposite effect," Bordieri says. "For them, it was pretty easy. So when they got a high score, it was easy for them, so maybe they assumed it must be easy for everyone else. They actually underestimated their abilities."

"So it does work both ways. We tend to be most concerned about the folks at the bottom. Remember, we're all going to be at the bottom of some ability. We can't be good at everything, at least, it's extraordinarily rare. So the challenge here is being able to identify the things we're just not as good at," says Bordieri. This inability to properly assess one's intelligence, achievements, etc., can be seen across the board. "For example, intelligence, IQ scores, follow a normal distribution. Average should be the 50th percentile, but if you ask Americans where they think their IQ falls, a little over 60%, 65% say they must be above average. Well, mathematically, that doesn't work...maybe experts could be better at this. So let's look at university faculty - that's a dangerous comparison group because I happen to be a part of it. And you ask them, 'how do you think you're teaching? How are you as a teacher?' What percent do you think say above average? 90%. [They think], 'of course I'm above average.' But of course, mathematically, we know that average would be 50%, some above, some below." 

There isn't definitive evidence as to whether the Dunning-Kruger effect is specific to American culture. "To my knowledge, there's not a broad replication or effort across the world to study this," Bordieri explains. "That's sometimes a reflection of the fact that most psychology research takes place in North America and western countries, but I think that's exactly where we should go. There probably are some folks out there doing that work right now. My guess, my prediction, my hypothesis would be that, yeah, maybe these effects would be reduced in some countries. We do see some gender differences already. Men tend to be far more overconfident in their abilities relevant to women. So there is an effect sometimes where men are for more likely to make the error of assuming they're better at something than they actually are. I think it's clear that there are some cultural effects or ways of how we're raised, our expectations, that interact with our ability to judge ourselves, our ability to be accurate in our self-assessment of where we're good at and where we might need to approve."

"One answer seems to be that we want to be open to and asking for feedback about our abilities, and that's tough to do. It's not exactly comfortable to be evaluated and to ask experts or people we look up to to give us feedback on how we're doing. That is really the most dangerous, I think, finding of all within this research line. We're not good at something, we don't know we're not good at it, and we're not seeking our or we reject anyone giving us feedback that we're bad at it," Bordieri says. "That leads to potential incompetence that really could have problematic implications in our world. You know, sometimes, right - if I think I'm funny and I'm not, maybe that's not that big of a deal. But if we think about folks that might be making decisions or in positions of authority or power, it's important that those individuals are accurately able to assess their abilities and to seek feedback when appropriate to guide decisions."

"I think that's the sort of dangerous overconfidence. Overconfidence alone is not necessarily a problem until you're then taking actions that make effects in the world that could be problematic. Sometimes being able to realistically estimate our abilities is important because it helps us know when we need to seek help and ask for others to kind of cooperate with us and when it's okay for us to maybe go out on our own," Bordieri concludes. 

Tracy started working for WKMS in 1994 while attending Murray State University. After receiving his Bachelors and Masters degrees from MSU he was hired as Operations/Web/Sports Director in 2000. Tracy hosted All Things Considered from 2004-2012 and has served as host/producer of several music shows including Cafe Jazz, and Jazz Horizons. In 2001, Tracy revived Beyond The Edge, a legacy alternative music program that had been on hiatus for several years. Tracy was named Program Director in 2011 and created the midday music and conversation program Sounds Good in 2012 which he hosts Monday-Thursday. Tracy lives in Murray with his wife, son and daughter.
Melanie Davis-McAfee graduated from Murray State University in 2018 with a BA in Music Business. She has been working for WKMS as a Music and Operations Assistant since 2017. Melanie hosts the late-night alternative show Alien Lanes, Fridays at 11 pm with co-host Tim Peyton. She also produces Rick Nance's Kitchen Sink and Datebook and writes Sounds Good stories for the web.
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