How To Find Your Place In The Pecking Order

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“Calibration” is the term social scientists use to describe the process by which we become aware of where we stand in regard to others—for example, whether as students we’re at the top of the class or near the bottom. 

A report from the University of New South Wales in Australia describes how this process works, and why some people don’t quite get it right:

“Everybody needs time in a new situation to calibrate themselves, to learn their place. But how long the process takes, and how accurate the final calibration is, depends very much on the person’s competence in the specific field, says Andreas Ortmann, a professor of experimental and behavioral economics at the Australian School of Business at UNSW.

‘We conducted a field experiment, which was complemented by a lab study, with a large group of new university students,’ Ortmann says. ‘They had all been in the top 10% of their previous schools and when they arrived many of them had trouble letting go of the idea that they still were at the top of their class at the university.

‘But of course they couldn’t all be the best. What we found was that within eight weeks the new students, most of whom had originally overestimated their talents, learned where they stood. But the people at the very bottom of the talent pool did not adjust quite as well. They still saw themselves as better than they really were.’

As previous research has found, the least competent people in a group tend to exhibit the least self-awareness. They overestimate their talents and fail to clearly recognize their weaknesses. Academics call this group the ‘unskilled and unaware.'” (Read more here.)

Ortmann notes that some psychologists believe that overconfidence is a cognitive illusion about which not much can be done. His research, however, shows that a particular kind of information about our performance can help us get a more realistic idea of where we stand.

In a study published in the Journal of Economic Psychology, Ortmann and his coauthors distinguished between “environmental feedback”—the kind of information about our performance we get just by doing the task (e.g., whether we’re able to make something work or not), and “calibration feedback”—information provided by others about our absolute and relative performance (e.g., “You’ve achieved success on this task about 60 percent of the time, while your coworkers average 80 percent success.”)

Given this latter kind of feedback, the researchers found, “it is the unskilled who improve their calibration most. Our results suggest that the unskilled may not be doomed to be especially unaware.” (Read more here.)

As I noted in my post about feedback from last week, it can be demoralizing to pit people against each other. But simple information about where one stands relative to others can be very useful.

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