In this post on his blog, Evan Marc Katz asked his readers to rank themselves in four categories: Looks, Personality, Intelligence, and Career. Both Lance and I couldn’t resist commenting, and Lance also blogged an excellent reaction here. It is pretty evident from the comments to his blog as well as the original article on the Freakonomics bulletin here that most people have a tendency to seriously overestimate themselves. EMK hypothesizes,
The good news is that having a combination of self-esteem and self-delusion seems to be exactly what allows us to function. How would we feel if we didn’t believe we’re above average in every single way?
Although that is insightful and seems at least partially true, I also can’t help but feel that there must be a little more to it. In a comment on Lance’s blog about whether you can teach an old dog new tricks, I mention something that I always told my students:
People are inherently lazy. Therefore, to convince them to take action, you must convince them not that your position is morally superior, but that they have more to lose by doing nothing than they do by taking action.
The fabulous cheekie suggested that I write a post where I expand on that idea, so here we go.
What Laziness Means (In Practical Terms)
In most persuasive writing, simple agreement is not the goal–action is. Say I’m writing an article about who you should vote for in the Presidential election. After you finish reading, I don’t want you to say, “Wow, Honey really had a point there, I agree!” I want you to 1) get to a voting booth on election day, even if it’s inconvenient, and 2) vote for who I recommend.
Unfortunately, I’m not going to get you to do that by saying that Candidate A is more educated, compassionate, reasonable, etc., than Candidate B. I’m going to get you to do it by saying that if you don’t vote at all, Candidate B is likely to win–and if Candidate B wins, then your taxes are going to triple, your health insurance will be cancelled, and your dog will be shot.
The consequences of inaction are now clearly greater than the consequences of taking 2 hours off work, driving to the polling place, and casting that all-important vote for Candidate A. So I’ve convinced you to take action.
Okay, got it.
How This Relates to Over-Ranking Ourselves
However, the consequences listed above are obviously extreme examples; it’s almost never that easy to convince someone to change in real life. It’s even harder, sometimes, to convince yourself to change because in a sense you’re going against your own natural tendency towards laziness. In fact, think of it this way
The reason that we try so hard to convince other people to change is that it’s easier to try and get someone else to change than it is to change ourselves.
Therefore, people may overestimate themselves not just because they’d feel bad if they ranked themselves below average, but because they’d have to take action if they felt they were below average. And taking action is something that people will almost never do unless the results are
- significant, and
We all know that when it comes to self-improvement, the results are seldom immediate or guaranteed–and the more significant a result you desire, the less likely #1 and #3 become. For example,
- It’s easier to convince myself that I’m an 8 or 9 on the attractiveness scale than it is to quit drinking beer or go to the gym five days a week.
- It’s easier to convince myself that I’m an 8 or 9 on the personality scale than it is to go on tons of dates or talk to everyone in the room at a party.
- It’s easier to convince myself that I’m an 8 or 9 on the intelligence scale than it is to read philosophy in my spare time or get a PhD.
- It’s easier to convince myself that I’m an 8 or 9 on the career scale than it is to meet with my boss and create a plan for a promotion or actively seek another job.
So we’re willing to put what might seem to be a disproportionate amount of effort into convincing ourselves and the world that we’re great, because we’d have to put far more work into actually becoming great.
I’d like to end with the observation that I think we sometimes underestimate how valuable change can be. One of the reasons I admire Lance so much is that he’s willing to deliberately (IMO) under-rank himself in so many categories in order to force himself to change. The fact that he perceives the potential payoff of self-improvement as so much more valuable than the effort and frustration necessary to achieve true change is nothing short of amazing.
Also, I want to throw a quick clarification out–I’m not trying to say that people are incapable of ranking themselves accurately or that anyone’s incapable of change and self-improvement. I also don’t think that laziness is necessarily negative in this context. You could just as easily refer to what I call “laziness” conservation of energy and claim that people don’t take action unless they know it’s worth it. And, if you think about it, why should they?
But I do think one of the keys to attaining a high ranking in any of Evan’s four categories is recognizing when you’re justifying your life rather than working to improve it.