The ‘no clue’ gene, its hazards – and its benefits.

1 February 2016 | Feedback high performance culture Leaders and Leadership

“Nearly 80% of people believe they are in the top 50% in emotional intelligence.” Peter Salovey.

The “no clue” gene is something that all of us possess to some extent. By this we mean either an inflated, or an under-rated estimation of our own abilities, competencies and emotional intelligence.

While presenting obvious challenges to progress, there are aspects of this distortion of sense of self which are actually, and entertainingly positive. There are at least three reasons that some people have distorted views of their strengths and development areas.

Positive Illusions

A triad of “positive illusions” was first introduced by UCLA Professor Shelly Taylor1. These “illusions” include: (*1) People tend to inflate the perceptions of their skills and abilities; (*2) People typically exaggerate their perceived control over work and life events; and 3) People generally express unrealistic optimism about their future.

Even when aware of these three “positive illusions”, researchers Sedikes and Gregg (2003) have identified that most individuals report being less prone to them; the self awareness gap persists.

Four important points come out of the research and work around positive illusions:

1. If self-enhancement (overestimating) is conceptualized as seeing one’s self generally more positively than others, then the outcomes (performance, health, career, and life success) are frequently more favourable, but if it is defined as having higher self-ratings than others who provide feedback (self-rater congruence), then the outcomes are frequently less than favourable.

2. Coaches should keep in mind that people generally tend to forget negative feedback about themselves–specifically in areas that matter most to them and typically remember performing more desirable behaviours than other raters can later identify (Gosling, John, Craik & Robins, 1998). It is also important to point out that people usually define their strengths based on traits they already possess and define their developmental opportunities more in terms of traits they lack at the moment (Dunning, Heath, & Suls, 2004).

3. Research suggests that people not only compare themselves to others but to how they used to be in the past.

4. In general, individuals evaluate their current and future selves as better than their past selves (Wilson & Ross, 2001).

Dunning-Kruger Effect

Have you ever noticed that it is often the most incompetent people who have the highest opinions of themselves?

The Dunning-Kruger effect2 describes a cognitive bias in which people perform poorly on a task, but lack the meta-cognitive capacity to properly evaluate their performance. Meanwhile, people with true ability tended to underestimate their relative competence. Dunning and Kruger often refer to a “double curse” when interpreting their findings: People fail to grasp their own incompetence, precisely because they are so incompetent. And since, overcoming their incompetence would first require the ability to distinguish competence from incompetence people get stuck in a vicious cycle. The researchers attributed this to the fact that the individuals who were worst at performing the tasks were also worst at recognizing skill in those tasks (i.e., inability to recognize own incompetence). As a result, such people remain unaware of their incompetence and accordingly fail to take any self-improvement measures that might rid them of their incompetence (unconscious incompetence).

Better than Average Effect

Illusory superiority is a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate their positive qualities and abilities and to underestimate their negative qualities, relative to others. This bias is commonly referred to as the “better than average effect” and it appears to be a consistent appraisal over a wide range of skills and abilities including driving skills, teaching and leadership ability (see references to specific studies below).

Particularly interesting is our unerring ability to overrate our emotional intelligence with nearly 80% of people believing they are among the top 50% most emotionally intelligent people, according to Peter Salovey.

And finally, one positive aspect of this dearth in self-awareness which has been identified is that if the task is very difficult, we might actually see the opposite when we underestimate our true ability (*3).

Somewhat comforting then that in some cases, a certain amount of ‘cluelessness’ may be no harm at all.

Without it, we might not otherwise try, fail and try again.

Authors: hpc’s research partner, Kenneth Nowack PhD of Envisia Learning, with hpc team. See Ken’s blog here.


1. Taylor, S.E. & Brown, J. (1988). “Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health”. Psychological Bulletin 103, 193–210

2. Ehrlinger, J., Johnson, K., Banner, M., Dunning, D. & Kruger, J. (2008). “Why the unskilled are unaware: Further explorations of (absent) self-insight among the incompetent” (PDF). Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 105, 98–121

3. Moore, D.A. (2007). Not so above average after all: When people believe they are worse than average and its implications for theories of bias in social comparison. Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes 102, 42–58

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