By now, it’s boring to say that Americans think highly of themselves. Thirty some-odd American teams vying in their respective sport for the title of “world champion” and a pervasive, if amorphous, sense of entitlement have elevated the matter to a question of degree: How highly do we think of ourselves? If you ask the average American, don’t expect modesty.
Spouting half-truths for the sake of ruffling feathers is easy. Luckily, a great deal of research has been performed over the last decade that confirms, with harder data, that what Americans lack in clarity we make up for in self-confidence. Self-interest levels are climbing at breakneck speeds. And at the same time, we’re learning a great deal about how we think of each other, even if reality may tell a different story.
The latest case of Americans overestimating their competence involves intelligence. A survey released by YouGov, a research organization that deals primarily with online polling, shows that 55 percent of Americans believe they are more intelligent than the average American. This means, as the astute observer will note, that the average American believes he or she is smarter than the average American.
Keep in mind that YouGov’s poll doesn’t specify which 55 percent holds this opinion. It’s entirely possible the 55 percent that made the claim is actually smarter, which means (excluding the survey’s margin for error) the perception gap is only several points above the truth. It’s also possible that none of the people who reported they were smarter actually are, which means everyone who is more intelligent thought fairly low of themselves. But given what we know, or at least assume about each other, this is probably not the case.
A more reasonable explanation is some mix of people, of both above and below average intelligence levels, miscalculated their smarts. It’s a phenomenon in human psychology that has come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and it could explain nearly in full why Americans are so impressed with themselves.
When smart people have an easy time learning a new skill, their first thought isn’t, Wow, I picked that up way faster than everyone else. In fact, it’s the opposite — an impression of normalcy. The same goes for people at the other end. Highly unintelligent people are trapped by their own lack of awareness, and tend to overestimate their competence. Researchers from Cornell University — social psychologist David Dunning and then graduate student Justin Kruger — discovered this phenomenon in 1999. Ignorance, not arrogance, they found, lay at nearly all turns of self-inflation or deflation.
How does a society hell-bent on patting itself on the back break this habit? Dunning and Kruger argue the solution lies in feedback. The elderly man who fancies himself an expert driver, but swerves like mad on the highway, can’t change his behavior unless he’s clued in to the problem. The same goes for younger people, too. "If adolescents don't realize that they really know very little about safe sex, or physicians don't know that medical technology and information has significantly changed,” Dunning told the American Psychological Association, “they can't be expected to be motivated to improve their situation."
The latest statistics on American education pit the U.S. as 13th on a list of the top of the world’s education leaders. To avoid ignorance producing unfounded bliss, and any further expansion in the pool of 55-percenters, students must confront their academic shortcomings. If not, they could fall victim to a second, more insidious consequence of the Dunning-Kruger Effect — not only inflating their own worth but shooting down the success of others, too.
In the end, of course, opening students’ eyes begins with parental awareness. But unless adults are capable of putting their own thoughts, opinions, and biases under a microscope, the cycle has no choice but to continue. We will stay, as we always have, world champions.