Write about intriguing psychological phenomena.

A Self-evaluation Method: What is the Worse-than-average Effect?

What is the Worse-than-Average Effect
The worse-than-average effect is a concept of human psychology and behavior that explains how we self-evaluate. Find out more about this interesting concept in this post.
Mrunal Belvalkar
Last Updated: Jul 14, 2017
To help you understand the worse-than-average effect, here are two very simple tests. Simply answer the questions in 'Yes' or 'No' - no writing down, no fuss, no nothing.
(NOTE: These tests are neither scientific, nor statistical. They are purely creative and have been designed by the author.)
TEST #1:
Below are 6 questions in 2 sets of 3 each. Answer the questions with a 'Yes' or a 'No'. Answer all the question in one set before moving onto the other set.
  • Do you think you could play throw-ball?
  • Do you think you can sing?
  • Do you think you will ever fall in love?
  • Do you think you could juggle 5 balls?
  • Do you think you could ride a unicycle?
  • Do you think you will live to be a hundred years old?
TEST #2:
Below are 6 questions in 2 sets of 3 each. Answer the questions with a 'Yes' or a 'No'. Answer the questions row-wise; i.e. first question from both the sets together, then the second, then the third.
  • Do you like the color red?
  • Do you like the beach?
  • Do you think your best friend has a stylish dressing sense?
  • Is red your favorite color out of all warm colors?
  • Would you go to Hawaii or France for a vacation?
  • Is your best friend one of the most stylish people you know?
In TEST #1, most people would tend to answer the questions in SET A with a 'Yes' and those in SET B with a 'No'. On the other hand in TEST #2, your answers for a pair of questions may not be congruent. Do you know why? It is because of something called comparative bias (also called a 'cognitive bias'). Comparative bias is when you tend to rate something based on its comparison with a set of other things. To explain with the help of the above tests; you may really like the color red, but your favorite warm color maybe yellow. You may really love the beach, but you would rather go to France than Hawaii. Sometimes the thing you are comparing may not just have one 'referent', as in case of TEST #1. Most people would tend to answer 'Do you think you will ever fall in love?' with a 'Yes' because most people on an average do fall in love. However, most people on an average cannot juggle 5 balls, and so you would tend to think even you can't! This is precisely because of the worse-than-average effect.
Worse-than-Average Effect
The worse-than-average (WTA) effect is a comparative bias wherein a person - as an outcome of self-evaluation - tends to rate or rank his abilities as below average compared to those of people on an average. The person tends to underestimate himself and his abilities. This is in contrast to the more prevalent and well-known better-than-average (BTA) effect, wherein a person tends to rank his abilities to be better than those of people at large.

The WTA effect is usually a result of our perception of what is likely and what is not likely, or 'chance'. We know that the chance of finding a $100 bill lying on the street is very less, so if you are asked whether you will find a $100 bill on your way to work tomorrow, you may tend to say 'No'. However, there is no logic or reason to 'know' - have you done statistical analysis? Do you know it for a fact that you won't be able to find a $100 bill? No. But still you think you won't be able to, when in fact you might just! (Lucky you!) Our opinion, evaluation, or simply 'judgment' about things changes when looking at them objectively (Do you like the color red?) and when looking at them in comparison to a set of things (Is red your most favorite warm color?).
The worse-than-average (WTA) and better-than-average (BTA) effects are both cognitive biases. However, there are several properties that are peculiar to each of them.

The better-than-average (BTA) effect is often regarded as a sense of overconfidence. You may not be the best at playing the guitar, but you tend to think so because, out of most people you know, you are the only one who can play a guitar. The BTA effect is a part of what is known as the illusory superiority - another cognitive bias where one tends to overestimate his/her positive qualities and underestimate the negative ones. The BTA effect can be seen with respect to intelligence, abilities, knowledge, etc. The BTA effect is observed in all walks of life - professional (where it is related to abilities, intelligence and knowledge) and personal or social (where it has more to do with possessing desirable personality traits). BTA effect has however, been considered to be a constructive effect.

The worse-than-average (WTA) effect is not considered to be an inferiority complex, the way BTA effect is regarded as overconfidence. The WTA is more to do with our judgment of what is possible, plausible and probable rather than if we can actually do it. The WTA effect also arises out of being misinformed or less-informed. You may not know many people who can juggle 5 balls at a time, so you tend to think you won't be able to either. However, someone who knows a professional juggler and has seen him/her practice may tend to answer the question 'Do you think you could juggle 5 balls?' with a 'Yes'. Here, there is no logical or concrete cause/reason for one to underestimate oneself - hence the WTA effect is often explained as an outcome of regression fallacy. A simple example of this would be to think your friend did well in an exam because he/she studied from your notes - he/she could well have studied from his/her own! This is regression fallacy - attributing something to be a cause when it isn't a cause! Another theory that explains WTA effect is self-handicapping - when you think you won't be able to do something because most people have failed to do it.
Worse-than-Average Effect in Daily Life
Many regard the WTA effect as a survival strategy of the mind. The mind wants to protect the self from negative feelings such as failure, embarrassment, etc. and hence, convinces the self that it will be unable to do something. However in my opinion, the WTA effect should be done away with. We would not have had such maestros as Beethoven, Bach, or even Michelangelo or Picasso enrich our lives if they had thought they can't play music or paint! One should not shy away from trying new things, attempting to perform tasks that one hasn't tried to do before, for it only enriches your experience as a human being.
The worse-than-average effect is a rather interesting phenomenon of human behavior and psychology. If I were personally affected by the better-than-average effect, I would assume all your questions were answered by this article. If I were affected by the worse-than-average effect on the other hand, I would think I have definitely left a considerable number of doubts unanswered. But I am going to think neither - I am just going to hope you had a nice time reading it! Adios!