First, it’s helpful to understand the opposite of imposter syndrome. While those with imposter syndrome think everyone is better than them, that’s often not true; others may know different things than you, but they’re not necessarily smarter.
You might think that, for those who assume they’re the best at what they do, it all boils down to ego. After all, someone who isn’t sensational at a job or task – but thinks they are – must have a huge ego, right? But according to a study from psychologist David Dunning, it’s not an outsized ego forcing them to think they’re great: It’s ignorance.
In the video below, Dunning discusses software engineers at two companies who were asked to rank their own performance; an outsized number felt they were the cream of the crop. At one company, 32 percent of engineers felt they were in the top five percent among their peers. At the second company, 42 percent felt they were better than 95 percent of their engineering cohorts.
Dunning explains how this opinion is more the product of ignorance than ego: “Those with the least ability are often the most likely to overrate their skills to the greatest extent.” And, he adds, those measurably poor in areas such as logical reasoning, math, chess, grammar, financial knowledge, and emotional intelligence often rate their expertise in certain fields “almost as favorably as actual experts do.”
His research shows the “fake it ‘till you make it” ethos is partly to blame; in addition to making bad decisions in an effort to finish a project or task, poor performers also don’t catch their errors, which dooms them to repeat mistakes. It’s willful ignorance.
Dunning also examined participants in a college debate tournament, and says the bottom 25 percent of teams in preliminary rounds lost 80 percent of their matches; however, they thought they were winning 60 percent of the time. The students simply couldn’t see where their arguments or positions broke down.
Once we’re exposed to knowledge, we admit our faults and shortcomings. Students who felt they did well on a logic quiz were subsequently provided a mini-course on logic; after that, they rated their original quiz performance as “awful.” Dunning notes people with moderate experience – and even experts – often think others have the same level of knowledge they do. They “know enough to know there’s a lot they don’t know,” which is a degree of emotional intelligence others lack.
Both sides – the ignorant poor performers and pensive achievers – often have inaccurate views of themselves. Keep this in mind next time you feel inadequate; it’s definitely you, but it’s also other people, just in a different way than you might assume.