Why accurate perception of yourself makes you happier.
Most people are average. You, me, and probably every person you’ve ever met would fall within the statistical bell-curve or averageness, and this is totally normal and acceptable. In statistics this is known as normal distribution and it looks like this:
The majority of the population (68% to be exact) are somewhere within the middle of the bell, on either side of the mean score within one standard deviation. One standard deviation below the mean is 34% of the population and one standard deviation above the mean score is 34% of the population. If we use IQ (intelligence) as an example of this rule-of-averageness, we can see that most people have IQ scores somewhere between 85 and 115, which are + or – one standard deviation of the mean score of 100 IQ points. I know that I am statistically average because my IQ score is 114 points when I do the test. It’s above the mean score of the population, but it is still average.
There is nothing wrong with averageness, it’s totally normal. Its statistically normal.
However, there is a phenomenon discovered by psychology research team Dunning and Kruger in 1999, where the bottom 16% of any given population believe they fall into the top 16% of the population. In other words, they believe that they are statistical outliers, which is statistically improbable. Most of the population is not that awesome. This delusional self-concept is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, and it could be happening to you.
Why does this occur? How can people be so out of touch with reality?
Well, it comes back to that famous saying: The more you know, the more you know you don’t know. This is sometimes attributed to Aristotle, but there’s no evidence that he wrote this line, however the anonymous quote is fairly apt for this situation. In essence it means that people who don’t know enough to realise how little they actually know will be able to delude themselves into thinking they’re an expert.
If you think about it, that could be pretty scary stuff. Imagine someone throwing in their career and family, moving to Hollywood hoping to make it big in acting because they think they’re amazing, but they’re actually terrible. This is why there are so many funny clips of people auditioning for talent shows unironically. They don’t know that they’re bad at something; they think they’re great at it.
How do people arrive at such incorrect conclusions about themselves? Usually its because they have used a faulty line of reasoning, such as can be seen in syllogisms. Syllogism is something Aristotle actually is responsible for and it’s a fancy word for deductive reasoning. This is where someone takes a combination of two premises and draws a conclusion from that combination. In order for a categorical syllogism to be a valid line of deductive reasoning, it has to hold up to scrutiny and this is where we can see the Dunning-Kruger flaw of logic play out.
The basic formula of a categorical syllogism is this:
This line of logic holds up if all of the premises are verifiably true. However, if one of them is inaccurate then the logic will be valid, but untrue. A syllogism can be invalid but true if “all” is replaced with “some” which is why lines of logic can be so tricky at times. In syllogisms, validity is not truth and truth is not validity. Both of these examples follow valid reasoning, but one of them is not true. How do we know when our valid reasoning has led to something which isn’t true?
The above example is when assumptions are made based on stereotypes. Human beings often believe that they’re logical, but strong evidence would suggest that common sense is not that common. Another type of syllogism is the all/some predicament which is not a valid line of reasoning, but can be true. It looks like this:
I went to university at Griffith on the Gold Coast, does that mean I am a pro-surfer? Obviously, that conclusion cannot be drawn from the available information. It’s not a valid line of reasoning. I’ve tried surfing once and I definitely suck at it, which was pretty much what I expected, even though I’m pretty good at boogie-boarding. I may improve with practice, but I might not.
Another example of syllogism is called conditional syllogism because it uses if/then reasoning as a line of logical thought process, and once more it might bear out in some situations, but not all the time.
My realistic self-concept about surfing came from an understanding of my own physical limitations, and I am perfectly ok with that. I’m fairly uncoordinated and do not have great balance. To this day I know my own limits, which is why I only go hiking in groups with other people: I know how easily I fall over and true to form my hiking buddies have seen it happen twice.
In contrast sometimes people will watch a sport like football so much that they think they could coach the pro team, or someone might have been pretty good at something like hiking ten years ago, but if they tried to do half of the things they still claim to be able to do they’d probably die. It has the potential to be a highly risky way to view yourself.
In her book, Insight, psychologist Tasha Eurich found in her research that contrary to claims made by previous psychology researchers in the 1980’s, before the work of Denning-Kruger, people with a distorted sense of their own abilities are not happier. Instead, they tend more towards anxiety and have more cases of depression than people who are able to recognise their own ordinariness.
In contrast, research has found that people with accurate perceptions of their own abilities are happier, content with themselves but continually seeking to improve, and can extend patience and forgiveness towards other people when they fail. People who are real experts tend to estimate their own abilities lower than the people who are nowhere near their high levels because they always see room for improvement and maintain a willingness to learn and grow. They often come to this moderate sense of self through attempting to learn more or putting themselves to the test. When they discover how truly difficult something is or find out how much there is to learn within a particular field of expertise, it forces them to change their perception of themselves.
Why are people with delusional self-concepts so prone to depression and anxiety?
Their identity and core sense of self is constantly under threat from reality, and the only way to control the threat is to avoid learning or being tested, which means they cannot grow. Their identity has been built around out-of-date information, or hyperinflated and untested ideas about who they really are, usually as a defence mechanism for being ordinary because they’re afraid that being normal equals being unworthy of love and acceptance. Often this toxic messaging stems from their parents or other influential adults when they were growing up. The payoff is they get to protect their egos with a layer of unconscious self-delusion, but the cost is they cannot genuinely progress towards excellence because they will not receive negative feedback. They also have trouble forgiving themselves when reality hits and contradicts the idealised self. When they attempt to self-reflect it ends up turning into rumination on their failures with no option of improvement and a plethora of self-recrimination. Given this catastrophising of reality, it’s easy to see why they avoid it at all costs.
This stalemate is often seen in situations where someone hears the gospel of Jesus as saviour of the failed state of humanity, but they won’t accept that they are one of the people in need of saving because their self-concept tells them that they’re better than others and cannot be criticised, otherwise they are beyond redemption. They must be perfect, or else…
These are the people unironically auditioning for heaven by trying to insist before God that He’s a fool not to recognise how awesome they are. Unfortunately, when they arrive at judgement day, Jesus will say I never knew you (Matthew 7:23 NKJV).
This is why the bible says: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding (Proverbs 9:10 NKJV).
In order to receive salvation, we have to understand and accept our own failures and shortcomings, otherwise we won’t have an accurate perception of how far we have fallen from the gold-standard set by God at the beginning. When we see how much we need God’s help and forgiveness we become open to constructive feedback and teaching, which leads to the development of wisdom. Continually learning from our mistakes and knowing our limitations produces humility and a forgiving nature towards other’s struggles.
It does not lead to being holier than thou, even if they actually are living on the straight and narrow path set by Jesus.
Jesus himself continuously extended grace to people who failed miserably in life, not because He had ever fallen short Himself, but because He saw their willingness to learn and grow. He knew those were people who would blossom in His care and soak up the living water to produce fruit. He could work with them. This is why God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6 NKJV). The human urge to preserve our egos at the cost of salvation is a very large stumbling block for many people because God cannot work with them. They’re not willing.
The crucial step through the narrow gate is to realise that we have not, in fact, nailed it.