People have better insight into how skilled they are at a particular task when it can be measured in an obvious way (such as speaking a foreign language), according to new research published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.
On the other hand, during tasks in which self-evaluation is difficult, people are often unaware of poor performance, often because of false feedback from family and friends.
For example, a person may think he is good at his job or have a special talent, such as singing, because of the feedback he receives from those around him.
“Too often that feedback is vague and does not offer any suggestions for improvement,” said Zlatan Krizan, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University. “It is easier to tell a person he is doing a good job instead of telling the truth and risking hurt feelings.”
“This is one reason why we have barriers to self-insight, because oftentimes, even if we get feedback, it’s not accurate,” Krizan said. “As a society we make the wrong trade-off by thinking that boostingself-esteem is going to boost performance, and that rarely happens. That empty praise of telling someone they’re great, or pretending there are not skill differences when there are, can really become a problem.”
Krizan and Ethan Zell, Ph.D., a professor at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, conducted a meta-synthesis of previous research to see how self-insight relates to different abilities. They analyzed large sets of data that examined connections between actual abilities and beliefs about those abilities for more than 330,000 individuals.
“In tasks that are more difficult to self-evaluate, such as athletic ability or singing, insight may be more challenging. People will focus on areas in which they excel and downplay their weaknesses,” Krizan said.
That’s why “American Idol” contestants — who insist their friends always tell them they’re good singers — can’t figure out why the judges don’t agree. Krizan notes that he often sees this phenomenon with students who perform poorly on an exam.
“Your expectations going into a performance will influence your experience,” Krizan said. “Students will get their exams back and say, ‘but I felt so good after the test.’ Well, if you don’t understand the material, it’s hard for you to gauge whether you’re giving right or wrong answers on a test.”
Employees who are skilled at evaluating their own abilities perform better in the roles to which they are assigned. Team members who cannot complete their assigned work may need to re-assess their abilities.
That is why Krizan recommends setting specific measures for evaluation and feedback.
“This will lead people to consider the things they’ve done and the outcomes, which will be more closely connected to real performances versus broad ideas of competency,” Krizan said.
“If people are evaluating themselves in terms of very specific criteria, they’re going to have better self-insight because they are constrained by how to interpret the ability.”