‘Self-Beliefs: Underestimating vs Overestimating Ourselves’

Recently, I was reading articles on self-concepts and I noticed almost every article made a similar statement that ‘We know ourselves better’. Well, I agree that’s true but not always especially when it comes to judging our abilities. When I observe people in real life, I see so many with self-misconceptions. People do not always estimate their abilities correctly. Before getting into details. Let me tell you two stories.

Story 1: There was a girl who was interested in drawing. She learned how to draw on her own, made few amazing paintings, and won many prizes. She works very hard at her job without a break and used to take care of her family all alone. One time when her family got sick, she managed to take care of her family and her job, worked day and night without any help and sleep. As time passed by, she got many promotions at her job and made everyone happy at home. Despite many achievements in her life, the girl suffered anxiety and self-worth issues every time she was faced with a challenge. She thought she was failing, not working enough, and letting her people down. Every day she cried and questioned her abilities despite evidence proving otherwise.

Story 2: There was a student who was very interested in science. She had high ambitions, wanted to achieve a doctorate, and desired to be one of the prominent members in her field. Every time there was an exam or an assignment, she skipped reading, copied, and always submitted her assignments after the deadline. When asked why, she said it was because she fought with her friends, or because of her family, or because she was not well. She continued to fail in exams, never tried to learn any topics, theories, or concepts in the subject. Despite everything, the girl thought she had immense knowledge and can easily win against the professional in her field.

Now, what did you observe in both the stories? The girl in the first story underestimated herself whereas the girl in the second overestimated herself. What’s more interesting is that the girls genuinely believed what they thought. The first girl believed she was incapable despite her achievements and the second believed she knows more than the professional without working at all. I am sure we all crossed such people at least once in our lifetimes. Think about a multi-talented businessman who always tries to seek validation from his family on his every decision or a friend who just started learning about the stock market and is ready to compete with the professional. Why do they do that?  It happens to every one of us. When faced with a challenge, we underestimate the risk and overestimate our potentials or vice versa. The question is why does it happen? And how to stop it?

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Why do we underestimate ourselves?

  • Parenting:

The foremost reason I think is parenting. As I mentioned in the previous articles, our personalities, interests, likes, and many more are influenced by our parents. Imagine a parent who always screams at his son that he is good for nothing every time the son did a mistake, compared him with his siblings, and said he is incompetent. What happens? The boy will start developing insecurities and genuinely believes he is incapable. A friend of mine who is multi-talented is always insecure and afraid to decide on his career because his father thinks he is incapable. If his father was more supportive and trusted his abilities, maybe he would have accomplished so much. So, it is very important to be careful about what and how parents talk to their kids. No parent should be a reason for their kid’s insecurities.

  • Fear of disappointment:

I think we all heard of a popular saying ‘Expectations only brings us disappointments’. No one likes to get disappointed or to disappoint our loved ones. Because of it, we think million times before we make a decision. Although, it is good to be careful most times fear of disappointment doesn’t let us move forward. Think about a student who is not willing to get into competition only because he/she is scared of losing or a boy who doesn’t express his feelings to his crush because of the fear of rejection and in situations like this, we often find ourselves unable to take a step forward and when that happens, we need to remember that ‘we don’t know the future’. As we fear we might be right about losing but we might also be wrong. Either way, we don’t know what’s in the future and it is okay to be uncertain.

  • Fear of risk-taking:

If you were born in an Indian Middle-Class Family, you know what I am talking about. Indian families never like to take risks. We always go for the safest option in the book. One of the reasons why many Indian parents do not wish to send their kids to different fields. I have a cousin who likes to enter the film industry. Listening to his ambition, everyone in my family immediately judged it’s a wrong choice. Why? Have they seen him act? No. They judged he cannot achieve it without knowing his capabilities. I am glad my cousin went forward with his decision but many stop themselves only because it’s an unusual option and is risky but no matter what others say there is never the safest option. Every decision has its consequences. If we take up a career because it is safe per, say engineering, we still have to go through so much competition. The chances of succeeding are always higher when we take up a career, we are most interested in.

  • Listening to everyone:

I am sure everyone experienced this. Every person in our life has advice that they want to give us. Most of them don’t even know why we decided to do something. When I first decided to take psychology as my subject, everyone gave me advice that it is not the right field for me. Most told me to take Business Administration and then MBA or pursue engineering and get a job. If I had listened to them, I wouldn’t be here today writing this article but unfortunately, many listen and step back. Considering advice is good but one shouldn’t blindly follow them. All the people who gave me advice not to take psychology don’t even know what it means. So, when we decide to follow a piece of advice, we should question ourselves on why we want to follow it? Is it because the person is experienced and might be right or is it because we are just told so?

  • Comparisons:

Comparing ourselves with others is an instinct of a human. We all do it. We compare ourselves with a person who is above us on the ladder and we make a list of why they succeeded in their field. When we find ourselves lacking according to the list, we immediately step back but what we don’t realize is there are many successful people in our respective fields. They are many successful sports persons, celebrities, scientists, etc., and all of them neither followed the same path nor have the same personality traits. So, it is okay if we think we are lacking in certain things because, with the right amount of guidance and hard work, we can be successful too.

  • Adjusting to what we have:

We are continuously told by our society that we have to adjust to what we have, we should not think about being at the top or about earning a lot of money because money doesn’t buy happiness. Many are not boosted to be successful and as a result, they find themselves adjusting and managing with what they have. But one doesn’t need to get adjusted if he/she is not satisfied with their current life. Irrespective of what others say one can have high ambitions and desires as long as they are realistic. If one has imaginations about how to lead their life, they should trust themselves and move forward. If it’s hard to be positive then it is okay to not be so. I always tell myself if I am unable to stay positive, I should be neutral. Just because I am not positive, doesn’t mean I am negative. I can be neutral and see where it goes.

  • Past experiences:

Our past experiences shape our opinions and behavior. Many times, we step back from a decision because we experienced failures before. One of my teachers in school used to tell us a story about a man who never gave up. Thomas Alva Edison failed more than 1000times before he successfully invented the light bulb. If he had given up because of his past failures, he wouldn’t have made history. There could be numerous reasons why we failed at a particular time. Because we failed once doesn’t mean we fail always. If we look up the reasons why we failed and work to overcome it, we sure can get successful one day.

Having said that, now let us see why we overestimate ourselves?

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The Dunning – Kruger Effect & Self-Serving Bias

David Dunning, a social psychologist with his student Justin Kruger experimented on undergraduate students. He asked questions on grammar, logic, and humor and told them to judge their score and their relative rank when compared to others. It was found that the students who scored bottom estimated themselves as the highest and the students who scored highest judged themselves as the lowest. Dunning and Kruger carried many such experiments and observed the same results. Unskilled people, not necessarily incompetent always judged themselves as above average. There could be many reasons why a person does that but Dunning says, Self-Serving Bias is one main reason. According to these people, they are never wrong. Self-serving bias is a concept where the person always credits success to himself and blames failures on others. In the above story, if you have observed the girl always blamed others or situations on her failures. She never admitted she did not do well in the exam because she did not study. Dunning- Kruger Effect and Self- Serving Bias helps us to protect our ego and self-esteem. No one likes to admit that they are unskilled. So, we tend to ignore the evidence and overestimate our performances. One of my friends once told me that ‘Ignorance is a Bliss’ and that’s true sometimes. Those who overestimate themselves are highly confident. It seems very logical if you think, when one thinks they know something very well, they tend to be very confident about it. This is also called Illusion of Confidence’.

Dunning, in one of his studies, quoted

‘…incompetent people do not recognize-scratch that, cannot recognize- just how incompetent they are…what’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge’

Although it gives people false confidence, the problem arrives when a person has to face the reality or a challenge that requires the skills, he thinks he has and as these people are most times ignorant, they do not wish to learn and ultimately never grow and develop in their skills. Another reason Dunning points out why people overestimate is because of no accurate feedback. If you observe people around you, you can see most do not like to give negative feedback. They say a painting is amazing even if they don’t feel so. This can make the painter believe that he is amazing and also some parents always praise their kids every time the kid does or doesn’t do anything. As much as a parent should not be a reason for a kid’s insecurities, they should not also be a reason for a kid’s ignorant behavior.  So, how do we stop overestimating ourselves?

Reality Check-In

The only way to stop overestimating ourselves is to carefully observe the results. If we failed an exam. Why did we fail? We can find several reasons if we start blaming others or situations but what’s important is to accept and focus on one’s weakness. If we find it is hard to self-assess our abilities, we can ask for feedback from the person we believe will give us accurate opinions and by being open to criticism, we can learn and help ourselves grow.


Sravani Mangalampalli