Wednesday, August 3, 2011

We're All Good Drivers. Or so We Think

We all believe we're better than average drivers, according to a new survey.  What's wrong with this picture?
  1. We're also mathematically challenged.  After all, we can't all be better than average given the very definition of average.
  2. The world is far too full of bad drivers for the above statement to be true.
  3. I, on the other hand, am better than the average driver.
People often overestimate themselves, particularly on how much they know.  Actual knowledge and perceived knowledge do correlate with one another.  In other words, survey a thousand people and ask them questions to measure what they know and what they think they know and the two tend to be positively correlated.  In general, those who tend to think they are more knowledgeable also happen to be more knowledgeable.  But there are exceptions.  It's where perceived knowledge outstrips actual knowledge that people get into trouble.

According to the story:
U.S. drivers believe their own driving knowledge, ability and safe driving habits are better than other drivers on the road, 64% rating themselves as “excellent” or “very good” while dishing out those high marks to only 22%t of other drivers their same age. Even among close friends only 29% of motorists ranked their buddies “excellent” or “very good” drivers.
We always overestimate (lie about) certain positive behaviors (voting, church attendance, gas mileage for our SUVs.  We tend to underestimate our negative behaviors (eating at McDonald's, watching Sponge Bob, picking our nose).  And when it comes to estimating the abilities of others?  Well, we tend to underestimate the positive, overestimate the negative.  Such is human nature.

So what's all this mean?  In part it's based in self esteem.  We want to feel good about our abilities and knowledge.  We need to.  I did not use "need" accidentally, because this is a major motivational factor in how we think about ourselves and our world.  We see the same thing when asking people what they know about politics and what they think they know about politics.  Certain kinds of news consumption (talk radio, for example) tends to increase our perceived knowledge but not really doing much for our actual knowledge.  TV news has the same effect, but for those of the lowest educational level or knowledge, TV actually does help.  This is a function of how TV tells stories and a function of those who tend to rely on TV and not print.

When it comes to driving, I'm not surprised by the result.  But the story itself is quite interesting.  Teen and senior drivers get rated the lowest, and that's no doubt true.  It's worth a read and worth thinking about outside and beyond driving as a domain. 

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