Runners on a forest trail

I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough… Or Am I?

People often believe, falsely, that they'll underperform at a task. So, is it more about overestimating others or underestimating themselves?


Self-confidence, or the absence of it, can be a powerful predictor of performance. These sentiments are not always well informed, but when people misjudge their performance relative to their peers, is it because they tend to misrepresent their own abilities, or the abilities of others?

Having studied these erroneous judgements, researchers from the University of Alberta believe that a lack of confidence on a particular task often stems from overestimating the abilities of others. This finding could inform techniques to counter self-doubt and imposter syndrome.

Past research has shown that people generally predict that they will outperform others on easy tasks, but underperform compared to others on difficult tasks.

To understand more, Gerald Häubl, a marketing professor in the Alberta School of Business, and Isabelle Engeler of the University of Navarra in Spain, studied 966 runners participating in a challenging long-distance mountain race. Before the race, runners predicted both their own finishing time, and the average finishing time for all participants. After the race, they recorded actual finishing times.

Among the group, 48% predicted they would do better than average with 52% predicting they would do worse than average. These predictions were correct for most participants (81% and 73% respectively).

The remaining runners, controlled for age, gender and running experience, were categorized into two groups. The ‘overconfident’, who wrongly predicted they would be better than average, and the ‘underconfident’, who wrongly predicted they would be worse than average.

Runners categorized as overconfident tended to wrongly predict their own performance and their finishing times were — contrary to their beliefs — worse than the average.

Meanwhile, the underconfident runners had a solid understanding of their own performance but expected more from other competitors. They generally tended to be better than average.

“Our work identifies two distinct sources of bias or two different reasons for why people might not be well calibrated: they can be biased in their self-assessment, and they can be biased in their assessment of others,” said Häubl.

Underconfidence can motivate people to work harder, but it can also manifest itself as imposter syndrome.

“The problem with underconfidence is that it can prevent people who actually have the potential to excel at something — a particular job or career — from even trying, because they falsely believe there are many others who are better than they are,” said Häubl.

Similarly, overconfidence can have both good and bad effects. It can provide motivation and empowerment, or provide a false sense of security.

“Some of humankind’s greatest achievements were probably fuelled by some form of overconfidence. But then, so were some of humankind’s most spectacular failures,” he added.

This understanding of the psychology of performance predictions will inform future work on supporting optimal performance. In the meantime, the researchers stress the benefits of well-calibrated confidence based on an accurate assessment of both one’s own and others’ abilities.

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Amy Noise is a science communicator who is fascinated by how and why the world works. Always learning, she is passionate about science and sharing it with the world to improve and protect our health, society and environment. Amy earned her BSc (biology and science communication) at the University of Manchester, and MSc (nutrition science and policy) at King’s College London, UK. She tweets sporadically @any_noise