Wray Herbert: Why We're Bad at Judging Ourselves

In the classic film "Play It Again, Sam," Woody Allen is the nervous and insecure Allan Felix, who has recently been dumped by his wife. When his best friends set him up with a blind date, the character blunders his way through the evening with one gaffe after another, ending with an appalling display of table manners at a Chinese restaurant. When his visibly dismayed date excuses herself to go to the restroom, Allen turns to his friends: "She likes me," he says confidently. "I can read women."

Say what? How could Allen get it so completely wrong? How could he not know what everyone else at the table knows, that he has completely embarrassed himself?

Psychologists are very interested in this kind of disconnect. We are all called upon everyday to read others, to interpret how we look in their eyes. Whether in a job interview, a musical audition or a first date, it's basic human nature to calculate how we're doing as performers in life. But we so often get it wrong, believing we did far better or far worse than we did in fact. Why are we so poor at intuiting what others think of us?

Some newly reported experiments may offer at least part of the answer. John Chambers of the University of Florida has been studying how people often confuse private and public information. Think of it this way. We are constantly experiencing the world, and incorporating some of that experience into our sense of self. Say you totally blow a job interview; that botched performance becomes part of who you are, and it will color your experience of your next job interview. Or you play a virtuoso violin solo or act courageously in battle. Each of these experiences—and even imagined experiences—is encoded into our memory of who we are, sometimes indelibly.

But here's the rub. Other people have no access to that information. They don't know that you're a hero in your own mind—or a bumbling fool. So when they meet you for the first time, they have no reference point. They only know what they observe at that moment in time.
That, at least, is the theory, which Chambers and his colleagues have explored in a series of innovative laboratory studies. Here's an example. The psychologists asked a bunch of volunteers to publicly perform the R.E.M. song, "It's the End of the World As We Know It." This song is very challenging, with rapid-fire lyrics. And the volunteers were all Harvard students, so presumably educable but not necessarily great singers.

They let all of the volunteers practice the song once in private before performing it. But they only gave half the volunteers the printed lyrics for this practice session. The other half got the lyrics for the actual performance. The idea was that having the lyrics would make the performance easier, so that some would do better in the real event than they did in rehearsal, and some would do worse. Or at least they would judge themselves that way, based on their two performances. And they did.

When the scientists asked the singers to guess how their public performances were judged by others, they inevitably thought that the audience would share their self-judgments. In other words, they irrationally expected the audience to compare their private and public experiences, to evaluate the relative merits of the two performances, even though that was clearly impossible. When they actually asked members of the audience what they thought, they were neither as harsh nor as laudatory as the performers expected.

I know what you're thinking: It's unlikely you'll have to sing an R.E.M. song in public anytime soon. But the fact is we do "practice" for most important events in our lives. Often these practice sessions take place only in the privacy of our mind; we imagine ourselves in a job interview or on a date before we actually experience it. The psychologists ran another experiment to specifically explore this idea, that our secret run-throughs can skew our perceptions as much as actual experiences.

In this study, they simply had two strangers engage in a brief conversation. But beforehand, they had some of them imagine things that might create a bad impression, while others imagined creating a good impression. Afterward, they asked them how their new acquaintance would rate them on traits like humor, charm and intelligence. The results were interesting. As described in the June issue of the journal Psychological Science, the volunteers' imagined performances were assimilated into their predictions of how they would be seen, so that those who had imagined themselves as charming and witty beforehand expected others to see them that way, as well, and vice versa. Fans of "Play It Again, Sam" will recall that in his fantasy life Allen is Humphrey Bogart, the gallant antihero who melts every woman he encounters. No wonder Allen was so far off the mark when it came to the real event.

So why are we so bad at this? It seems so obvious that people can't know us as intimately as we know ourselves. Chambers and colleagues have an idea. People probably incorporate their private experiences into their self-perceptions at the moment they are encoded into memory, so that they are highly difficult to expunge, perhaps impossible. Think of a juror who hears inadmissible testimony in the courtroom, and is then instructed by the judge to disregard it. Could you do that? I know I couldn't. Our private sense of self is contaminated by all sorts of inadmissible evidence, so how can we expect to get the verdict right?