Who are you Under (or Over) Estimating?

By Michelle Gibbings|07-06-2022 | 2 Min Read
Source: Image by freepik on Freepik.com
Finding Balance Between Underconfidence and Overconfidence

In the binge-worthy Netflix TV series, Anatomy of a Scandal, you watch how the relationships between the characters unfold as a politician's affair unravels and plays out in the press.

One of the lead female characters, Sophie Whitehouse, is the politician's wife. She is trying to figure out what's happened and the reality of her husband's past actions. In a robust exchange with another character, she says, "I have been simultaneously under and overestimated my entire life".

She is not alone on that front. We over and underestimate all the time.

The most brilliant example I came across recently is that of magpies. Scientists were interested in discovering more about how they move and their social dynamics. So, they attached tracking devices to five magpies. They didn't expect to find that the magpies would cooperate to remove the tracking devices. The magpies outsmarted the humans! We often think animals are far less clever than they are.

Of course, we also underestimate others. The root cause of this is bias, inaccurate data and misplaced expectations.

As I've written about before, research conducted many years ago by Psychologist Robert Rosenthal looked at the impact expectations can have on how teachers treat students and the resulting impact on the student's performance.

In the experiment, teachers were told the names of students that were expected to do well. These names, however, were picked at random (i.e. the students selected were no brighter than other students in the class). The research found that the teachers treated these students differently – they were more supportive and friendly. They were more willing to spend time with them and provide them with feedback. Not surprisingly, the performance of these students improved.

There are also plenty of times when we overestimate our abilities too. Here are just a few examples.

In a 1981 study of US drivers, 93% of drivers surveyed classified themselves as better than average.

Researcher David Reilly from the School of Applied Psychology at Griffith University and colleagues found that biological sex and psychological gender were the strongest predictors of overestimating IQ. He wrote, "Being born male and having strong masculine traits (both men and women) were associated with an inflated intellectual self-image".

Gerald Häubl, a marketing professor from the Alberta School of Business and colleagues, found that when we assess competence and capability, we can be both biased in our self-assessment and biased in our assessment of others. Their research found we mispredict how we will perform relative to others and in absolute terms.

Their research involved a mountain running race. The results revealed that the overconfident runners who predicted they would finish in a better than average time did so primarily because they overestimated their own performance. In contrast, the runners who expected to perform below average had a good understanding of their performance but thought their competitors would run faster. Curiously though, people in this latter category tended to perform better than average. But those who were over-confident and overestimated their performance tended to be those who performed worse than average.

Those findings remind me of the Dunning Kruger effect. It's worth checking out if you haven't heard of it before.

We can also underestimate ourselves in many ways, with self-limiting beliefs holding us back.

According to one study feedback plays an integral part in helping us better estimate our abilities. Researcher Marion Rouault said, "We found that people performed the tasks equally well in the presence and absence of feedback – however, they clearly underestimated their ability when feedback was withheld."

We all know that confidence matters so you don't want to underestimate yourself, but at what point does confidence turn into over-confidence? To me, it's the difference between confidence and hubris. A confident person is open to debate and challenge and accepts it's impossible to have all the answers. A person with hubris digs in and doesn't listen. They think they have all the answers, all the time, and even in the face of data or evidence showing otherwise, they refuse to accept different ideas or that their performance falls short.

As with everything in life, it's a balance. You don't want to be so overconfident that you fail to learn and change where you can. But you also don't want to be under-confident that it stops you from being who you could be.

Read More: Eight Golden Rules for Getting Ahead

Infographic by Leaderonomics: How to be Confident Without Being Overconfident

Finding that balance involves:

  • Being open to learning
  • Taking the time each day to meditate and reflect
  • Listening and taking on board feedback
  • Having clarity on your strengths (consciously competent) and areas of improvement (consciously incompetent) and being willing to do the work to shift, where necessary
  • Noticing your emotional reaction to events and situations
  • Recognising when and how you are holding yourself back, and challenging what your inner voice says to you
  • Doing the work to write the narrative that you want your story to be
  • Accepting those moments where courage is needed and being willing to step forward


Mark Twain once wrote, "All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence and then success is sure". While I am a big fan of Mark Twain’s work that quote is a little too pessimistic for me. Instead, I would suggest:

All you need in life is a love of learning and balanced confidence, and then success awaits.

Related: A Love of Learning is the Key to Your Growth


This article was first published on michellegibbings.com.

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Michelle Gibbings is a workplace expert and the award-winning author of three books. Her latest book is 'Bad Boss: What to do if you work for one, manage one or are one'. www.michellegibbings.com.

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