Do You Overestimate Yourself? Everyone Else Does…

woman on a couch looking at her laptop and smiling

The New York Times had a story yesterday on their Freakonomics blog, in which people rated themselves in both looks and intelligence. Not surprisingly, most seemed to slightly overrate themselves. I wish they took a few more average people to get a broader perspective.

This reminds me of an experiment in which I asked a handful of people to rate themselves in four categories: Looks, Intelligence, Personality, and Career. No one judged themselves as less than a 7 in any single category. Most were 8s and 9s across the board.

No one judged themselves as less than a 7 in any single category. Most were 8s and 9s across the board.

That might mean that these were extraordinary people. More likely it means that we all have a slight disconnect between how we see ourselves and how others see us. 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? I’m not sure I’d want to know.

Anyway, since we’re all anonymous, what do you say we try the experiment here? Answer these 3 questions in the comments below:

Where do you rank yourself in Looks, Intelligence, Personality, Career?

How would you rank the “typical” person you date? Do you rank them higher or lower than you?

How do you think others would rank you behind your back?

If I have to participate (and I probably do), I’d give myself straight 7s. Maybe an 8.5 on intelligence, if I were to be embarrassingly honest. Maybe a 6.5 on career if I were to be more embarrassingly honest. But then, I do strive to achieve much more in life.

My typical girlfriends would be ranked a bit higher. Similar in looks, but generally impressive careers and great personalities.

And I don’t even want to know what others would say about me behind my back. I take back the question! But it is something to think about.

Anyway, I’d be curious to hear your answers below, as well as your thoughts on why it’s so hard for us to be objective about ourselves.


(BTW, if you’re really upset about the idea of “ranking”, or the fact that things like “kindness” aren’t on the list, your comments are duly noted. This is a very unscientific experiment.)

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  1. 61
    Karl R

    Honey (#56),

    I’d have to disagree with your correlation between the value of the rating being inversely proportional to the effort a person will exert.

    I wouldn’t have listed my Looks or Career as above average a couple years ago. I probably would have listed my Looks as a 5 and my Career as a 3 (instead of a 7 in Looks and 6 in Career).

    I started exercising regularly a couple years ago, and currently I work out every day. I’ve put on 15 pounds of muscle in that time. Due to yoga, my posture is better. And since I’m not nearly as skinny as I used to be, my confidence is better. All of those are direct improvements to my Looks.

    In the past 2 years my pay has doubled. I have a challenging job which I enjoy. My boss and coworkers appreciate what I do. After a series of ups and downs, my career path is headed upward again.

    Based on that, I’d say that a score improves after putting effort into that category and seeing results.

    Intelligence (as JuJu and I have defined it) is not something that can be improved. Education and knowledge can be improved, however.


    JuJu (#54) stated:

    “Karl R s and Steve’s posts implied that the more intelligent people (or whoever they referred to) are so maladapted to the realities of dating that they have to conduct a research in the theory before engaging in the practice.”

    Where did I suggest that the research occurred before the dating started?

    Since I prefer to use personal examples:
    When I started online dating, I had just ended an 8 month relationship. I tried eHarmony for a month, didn’t like it, switched to and discovered their archive of articles (including a number of Evan’s).

    My initial profile would have been a lot better if I’d read Evan’s advice first, but bit of reading and a few revisions corrected that problem. And after reading hundreds of cliche-filled profiles, I’d say that the average customer ought to do a little research.

    Who is maladapted, the person who seeks information to improve their dating odds, or the person who keeps using the same ineffective strategies?

  2. 62

    @Karl R (#61), actually your example proves the point I was trying to make exactly. You felt that your scores were average or below average, so you put in a ton of effort to change them.

    And now that you’ve gotten a taste of how significant the results of that effort were, you continue to put more effort in–even though (and actually because) your scores have gone up so much. That’s often the way it is; achieving true self improvement encourages more change.

    As far as intelligence, I believe the mind is like a muscle–you can’t “improve” beyond the boundaries that have been genetically set for you, but you can seek out external circumstances that will enable you to live up to your full potential (whether you consider that analytical abilities, being a repository of facts, or whatever). JuJu may have gotten a 153 on an IQ test, but if she lived in a sensory deprivation tank for a month, her score would probably be quite different. And if she took a ton of practice tests and immersed herself even more fully in structured creative and intellectual pursuits, she could probably do even better.

    However, the very fact that such significant improvement is possible means I’m not sure that anyone can be a 10 in all categories. It seems like you’d reach a zero-sum game eventually–the more effort (and therefore time) you put into improving any one category, the less time you can necessarily spend on another.

    Obviously this isn’t always the case (improving your career may necessarily mean improving your intelligence, for example). But because work goes not only into improving in any given category, but also maintaining any gains made in that category, it seems like there must be a ceiling. Of course, if people are born with really high scores in some of the basic areas, they may be able to improve and maintain 10’s across the board. And we are all responsible for our own improvement (or stagnation or loss) no matter where we fall initially.

  3. 63
    Cathouse Teri

    Cats like their water aerated. They ain’t much into standing water. I had a cat who would go up to our water dispenser in the garage and push the button to get it to splash onto the floor and then drink from there. Drove my ex CRAZY. I thought it was purrty smart of the creature!

    (How many segues can we squeeze into this post, do ya think?)

    Regarding the “simpler” conversation ~ I was getting the impression from JuJu’s comments that there is a belief that the “more intelligent” folk make the mistake of overthinking the dating process. Tending toward research and rankings and such. Along the lines of “ignorance is bliss.”

    Ignorance can truly be bliss. But I believe it is the habit of most humans to overthink when it comes to relationships. Dating should be fun. If it’s made out to be a chore, it will hardly be a pleasure. In response to a post elsewhere, I said this about what I’ve learned about the mating game:

    It’s about life. It’s about living. It’s not about dating. Life breeds life. Go about wrapping your arms around the the very experience of it. The energy you exude will draw others who are present in their own lives. This strange distraction of the dating game is, I think, making it all sterile and formulatic. Which it is not. It should be surprising. Love, and every inch of it. Leave room for much of that.

  4. 64

    Karl, I just thought the following could be construed as that:

    I’d say that we tend to view dating as a topic that can be researched on the internet. This tendency is pretty common among certain demographics (like geeks) who tend to be a lot brighter than average. And like anyone who takes the time to do research, we’ve quickly become less clueless than those who didn’t take the time.

    I don’t know anything about anyone’s personal history here and will abstain from making any far-reaching claims.

    But it seems that every time I open my mouth, I offend someone, so I should just stop speaking. =)

  5. 65
    Cathouse Teri

    JuJu ~ Misunderstandings occur. There is no need to think you should stop speaking.

  6. 66

    Cathouse Teri Jul 17th 2008 at 09:55 am 63
    (How many segues can we squeeze into this post, do ya think?)

    I have no idea. What kind of cat do you have ? 🙂

  7. 67
    Cathouse Teri

    Steve: I have none, at present. I’m the only pussy at the cathouse. 😉
    But THAT cat was a huge, gorgeous gray tabby named Hamlet.

  8. 68
    Karl R

    Honey (#62) stated:
    “You felt that your scores were average or below average, so you put in a ton of effort to change them.”

    I wasn’t sufficiently clear in my previous post. My scores had been average to below average for more than a decade without me making a focused effort to change them.

    I initially started exercising for health reasons. Once I started seeing some results in my appearance, that added to the motivation to work harder.

    The people who work the hardest on their appearance aren’t the people at the bottom. The friends of mine who have the lowest opinion of their own appearance don’t put much effort into their appearance. They may occasionally go on a crash diet for a few months, only to gain the weight back again. But the attractive middle-aged women, they put out an incredible amount of effort. They used to be near the top of the scale, they’re still close to where they were … and they’re working hard to stave off the inevitable decline.

    People don’t work hard because they’re at the bottom. They work the hardest when they’re higher up, and they’re afraid that they might be headed all the way down.

    Being on the bottom isn’t that strong of motivation, provided you know you can survive there. If you get some upward mobility, you see the potential for even more … that’s motivation. But if you see some downward mobility, you fear the potential for even more … and that’s the strongest motivation of all.

  9. 69

    @Karl R–Perhaps I wasn’t completely clear, either, because I don’t consider the examples that you give as being related to what I’m talking about. People at the top who work hard aren’t changing anything, they’re maintaining (or sometimes sustaining momentum in a previously established upward direction), and I consider that a completely different type of energy.

    For example, if you’ve made great strides in your career in the last two years, you’re unlikely to try to leave that your field entirely and switch to a totally different career, even if that other career is more lucrative or prestigious. Someone who has had an soul-sucking, low-paying job for the last two years is more likely to switch to something different.

    Certainly laziness combined with fear keep people at the bottom for a long time, and achievement combined with fear keep people at the top for a long time. People from a wide variety of points across the spectrum maintain their own individual status quo, but only unhappy people seek radical change.

    I agree that there’s a big difference in motivation between the person who’s slipped from a 5 to a 4 (which doesn’t generally seem to make much of a difference to the person involved) and the person who’s slipped from an 8 to a 7 (which tends to bother those people very much).

    There tends to be a tipping point before many people realize they’re unhappy, and unhappiness can be present no matter where you fall on the spectrum. People near the top even tend to view remaining at the same score for too long as the beginning of a downward spiral, an interpretation that people at the bottom would probably be highly unlikely to have.

  10. 70

    looks – 6. it’s not that i think i’m unattractive. my self esteem is actually pretty solid. it’s that i don’t exude broad spectrum appeal. i work the niche market.

    intelligence – 6. all types of intelligence out there. emotional. intellectual. social. i’m great at some of them, horrible on others. but i cover up well with lots of blue collar work ethic and not rambling 🙂

    personality – 6. oh i can get sooo awkward! but! i’ve played to my strengths, been very real, and that seems to instead come off as bed-ably endearingly-cute and free-shots-at-the-bar worthy.

    career – 8.5. i don’t love what i do, but it’s a great stepping stone to wherever i want to end up next. and give me a few years, and i’ll be a great suga mama.

  11. 71

    oh and i think it’s hard for us to be objective on ourselves because…we walk a fine line between good self esteem, and maximizing our pluses to make ourselves marketable…

  12. 72

    on post #43

    ………I have been told that MENSA women are comfortable being around men….

  13. 73
    Cathouse Teri

    My father defines intelligence as “coping with complexity.”
    And he’s the most intelligent person I know. According to my mother, he was invited to join MENSA, but he has never been one to join things. Nor to accept a label he can use as a way to feel superior to others. Which I appreciate about him.

  14. 74

    If memory serves me right, Mensa members must pass a written test, of which the those who score in the top 2% are allowed to be members.

  15. 75
    Evan Marc Katz

    From the MENSA website:

    Candidates for membership in Mensa must achieve a score at or above the 98th percentile on a standard test of intelligence.

    Generally, there are two ways to prove that you qualify for Mensa: either take the Mensa test, or submit a qualifying test score from another test. There are a large number of intelligence tests that are “approved”.
    If memory serves correct, you could have submitted a good SAT score and gotten in. So don’t pay too much attention to the MENSA label. It’s cool to know you’re qualified – not cool to brag about it in casual conversation…

  16. 76

    Actually, you can only use your SAT score to qualify if you took it prior to 1994. Most of the scholastic aptitude tests have been phased out as a means of entry because they have been scientifically proven to not measure intelligence.

    I only joined because when I found out the BF was in, it reminded me that my mother had always wanted to join but was too sick (she was extremely ill my whole life and died when I was 18). Since she never realized her dream to become a member, I was pleased she passed on the genes for me to do so in her memory.

    Not sure this is casual conversation, though, Evan–you asked us to rank ourselves in the category of intelligence as part of an experiment. Some of us had proof that we were in the top 2%, and used that as evidence to justify our personal rankings. Doesn’t seem inappropriate to bring it up in that context, though I have to admit that I haven’t read all the postings by Mensans carefully enough to know whether anyone was “bragging,” whatever it is you mean by that.

  17. 77
    Evan Marc Katz

    Didn’t say YOU were bragging, Honey. This thread is all about intelligence, and therefore that information is relevant. But if you were to just drop MENSA into a casual conversation? Yeah, it’s somewhat gauche.

  18. 78
    Cathouse Teri

    Yes, it is by testing that you become qualified to be a member of MENSA. In my father’s case, he had taken a number of tests, as he was in the military. This was in the fifties. And he received an invite from MENSA without having applied.

    I agree that MENSA membership can be injected into this specific conversation without being called bragging. Since the information was requested. But it can also become the focus, rather than simply a way to justify ranking. It can become problematic, just as when one tries to rank oneself as attractive. By what scale? Do I say I am attractive because I win a yearly beauty contest? Indeed, if I do, I can safely say that I am attractive. And, in this context, I suppose I can say it without being accused of bragging. But when I belabor the point, it does begin to look like I’m tooting my own horn.

    Evan ~ are we to know your results of this experiment?

  19. 79

    I see what you’re saying, Evan. The BF tried to drop his Mensa membership into conversation once, I think during a job interview, and the person didn’t know what it was. So then he had to explain, and it got all awkward. There’s definitely a time and a place (and honestly, that place is almost never).

  20. 80

    Evan all this over rating is a good thing! Low self esteem is rampant amongst most of my girlfriends and as a result, they allow themselves to be trapped in miserable relationships because they don’t think themselves worthy of anything better. So they will never be on internet dating sites, dating blogs or taking surveys about themselves. I think you are seeing the “over rating” because you are dealing with a population with self-esteem who take the risk to put themselves out there for a healthy relationship. There are far far more people out there who don’t.

    As for myself:

    Looks – 6. I’m attractive but not Angelina Jolie
    Career – 9. I’m the director of an office that works on the highest foreign policy priority of the world’s only superpower and I’m only 43. not too shabby.
    Intelligence – if its the Mensa standard, 6.5. But I think intelligence is much more than that. I think its how you work the world in a positive way to make things happen. By that definition, I’m a 8.
    Personality – 9. When I walk into a place where I am known, its a bit like being Norm on “Cheers” when he walked into the bar. I have a gzillion friends for a reason and former staff will tell you that I was the bestest boss in the whole wide world.

    How others would rate me? I have a male friend who is brutal honest who would concur with my assessment on intellect and personality. On looks however he says my face is a 10 but that I need to lose weight. Interestingly, I have the exact same measurements as Marilyn Monroe (weight, height, inches, dress size). My have our cultural definitions of beauty have changed!:-)

    How would male dating prospects rate me? They tend to get hung up on the 6 looks and don’t take the chance to find out about all the 9s – or the Marilyn Monroe body for that matter:-).

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