The Prairie Home Companion statement that in their community, all children are above average is humorous, but apparently it has a basis in reality. Cornell University psychology professor David Dunning studies how well we assess our abilities. “Everybody thinks they’re above average. Obviously not everybody can be above average. Somebody has to be below average,” Dunning says.
Dunning says one interesting anomaly is gender differences in estimating our scientific competence Dunning gave a group of male and female students a pop quiz about science. Afterwards, women underestimated how well they’d done, while the men didn’t. The women were then less likely to volunteer for a science contest, based on their perceived inferiority. In reality, there were no gender differences on the outcome of test, according to Dunning. There was no difference in performance, but there was a difference in perception which determined whether or not they wanted to do more science. This is probably why fewer girls than boys pursue scientific studies in school.
This work was featured in the December 2005 issue of Scientific American Mind, and “Self-Insight: Roadblocks and Detours on the Path to Knowing Thyself,” David Dunning, Psychology Press, New York, 2005. Dunning’s work was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.