Falling prey to “False Consensus Effect”: Are you normalizing your success?

In a study published 10 years ago Cornell University psychologists David Dunning and Justin Krueger (now at NYU) demonstrated an interesting relationship between competence and self-confidence.

Their findings showed that incompetent people were also unaware of their incompetence and tended to overestimate their performance. They seemed to lack the meta-cognitive skill that allows them to compare their performances to their peers and realize their own poor performance. Only after they got training to become more competent they also got better in assessing their ability. This, of course, presents an interesting paradox – people become more skilled at recognizing their incompetence once they were no longer incompetent.

What I’ve found equally interesting in their results was the inaccuracy of competent people in assessing their level of performance. In contrast to their incompetent counterparts, competent people tended to underestimate their performance – they had less confidence in their superior performance. In other words, they did not think that they performed particularly “great” relative to their peers; they thought they performed at a “normal” level.

What was the reason for their underestimation? Were they just being modest? Or did they also lack the meta-cognitive skill required for making accurate comparisons, just like the incompetent people?

The explanation of Krueger and Dunning for this “burden of expertise” is a well-established bias in social psychology: false consensus effect. This effect refers to our tendency to overestimate the degree to which our own behavior, attitudes, beliefs, and so on are shared by other people.

There are a few reasons for that tendency. First, we take our own behaviors, attitudes, or beliefs as a reference point, or an as anchor when predicting the behaviors, attitudes, or beliefs of other people. Secondly, we feel good when we think others would behave or think the same way as we do.  Besides, we tend to hang out and be friends with people who are actually similar to us – that further biases our point of reference when predicting the behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs of “majority”.

So, how does false consensus lead competent people to underestimate their performance? They project their performance onto their peers and “normalize” their success. They think others would perform at a similar level. The implications go even one step further when their peers are also high-performers – they might think what they are doing is just “normal”.

This might lead to a systematic pattern of underestimation in high performance environments. It might also give into perfectionist tendencies – thinking, to be “really good” you should be doing much better when in reality your performance is already superior.

How might this be relevant for YOU?

  • Do you tend to explain your successes or good performance as “normal”?
  • When complimented for your success do you respond “Thanks, but it’s nothing special”. Or go on to explaining how anybody could’ve done it? (That’s what I did years ago when my supervisor had pointed out how doing a Ph.D. was an indication of competence and success. Being surrounded with other graduate students, I tried to explain it away by saying ‘But that’s normal…” Well, I was simply normalizing my accomplishments.)
  • Are you taking credit for your successes or are you consistently attributing it to external factors such as luck, “easy” assignments, “nice” evaluators (i.e., peers, clients, managers)?

If so, you might be falling prey to false consensus effect. The idea is not giving up the modesty and start bragging about your accomplishments, but rather acknowledging and appreciating them. This presents a number of benefits:

  • A more accurate self-assessment goes a long way in managing your time and resources strategically. You’re in a better position to decide where your attention and self-improvement efforts should be directed to when you assess your performance accurately.
  • A boost to your self-esteem. High self-esteem (see previous post) serves as a stock of positive feelings that lead to greater initiative and a decreased vulnerability to failures and stress.
  • Positioning yourself better in relation to others. When you start normalizing your accomplishments others will start doing the same (about your accomplishments) even when initially they were convinced about your superior performance. Once you give yourself the credit you’ve deserved, others will follow.

Now, try to reflect back on your typical responses to your successes, are you a victim or the false consensus effect?


Kruger, J. & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 1121-1134.

This entry was posted in beliefs, Cognitive biases, competence, performance, self-esteem. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.