There is a lot of evidence that people are overconfident in many judgments about themselves. If you ask a group of people how talented they are at some skill relative to the population as a whole (or even relative to a specific group that they are a part of), the average response is above average. This finding has sometimes been called the “Lake Wobegon” effect after the town in Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion where “all of the children are above average.” Of course, everyone can’t really be above average, and so some people are overly optimistic about their abilities.
What value does this optimism have?
A paper in the February, 2010 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General by Ying Zhang and Ayelet Fishbach suggests that being optimistic about your ability to perform some task may enhance your overall performance. However, this optimism is most useful when the task you expect the task you are about to perform is going to be difficult.
In one study, people were told that they were going to have to solve anagrams in which they had to rearrange the letters of a word to form other words. For example, the word “items” can be rearranged to form the words “times,” “mites,” and “emits.” They were led to believe that this task was going to be easy or difficult to do.
Before starting to solve the anagrams, half the people were asked to rate how well they would do on the task relative to everyone else doing it (knowing that the other participants would also be university students). Of interest, when people thought they were going to get a hard task, they felt that they would do better than 66% of the other participants, but when they thought they were going to get an easy task, they felt they would do better than only 54% of the participants. The other half of the people in the study did not rate how well they would do in the task relative to others.
The experimenters then measured how long people spent solving the anagrams. People who did not rate how well they would do compared to others spent about the same amount of time on the task whether they were led to believe that it was going to be easy or hard (with a slight tendency for those who thought it was going to be easy to spend more time than those who thought it was going to be hard.
Those people who rated how well they would do on the task showed a much different pattern. Those people who thought the task was going to be hard spent much more time on the task overall than those who thought the task would be easy. The optimism of the people who thought the task would be hard translated into effort on the task.
It isn’t that people are incapable of making accurate assessments of their performance. In another study, people made their judgments about how well they were going to do on the task under one of two different conditions. One group was told that their reward for doing the task would be based on their overall performance. A second group was told that their reward for doing the task would be based on whether their judgment of how well they would do relative to others was accurate.
The people who were rewarded for the accuracy of their judgment judged that they would be more likely to do well in the easy task than in the hard task, and they ended up spending more time at the easy task than the hard one. Those who were rewarded for their performance on the task, though, judged that they would do better on the hard task than the easy task. These people spent more time on the hard task than the easy one as well.
These results suggest that it can be valuable to be overly optimistic about your performance. In particular, when you are about to go where no one has ever gone before, you are better off going boldly where no one has ever gone before. The optimism in the face of difficult tasks will help you to put more effort into performing well.