In 1999 researchers at Cornell University found that the less competent people were precisely the least likely to recognize it. In fact, often they thought they were above the average. This phenomenon is known as “Dunning-Kruger Effect”.
These researchers believed that people who have limited knowledge in certain fields, not only make unfortunate mistakes but their incompetence prevents them from being aware of it. In practice, the problem is that they don’t have the necessary knowledge to realize they’re wrong, which often lead them to adopt an arrogant attitude.
Equality Bias: If you can’t, me too
Now researchers at the University of Tehran realizaed an interesting research to give continuity to this experiment that we can now consider a classic one. These psychologists have worked with volunteers from Denmark, China and Iran, to have a representation of different cultures.
In the experiment, two people separated from each other where shown two images virtually identical, but not at all. In one of the pictures, there was an “alien object”. The images passed very quickly and the two people had to detect in which one was the different object.
That said, seems like the task was very simple. The problem is that both parties should agree and choose only one image. If there was a disagreement, a third person in the room should indicate the correct answer. At that point, the two participants knew whether his decision was right or not.
The couple should repeat this procedure with 256 images, so they got to know enough to realize who of them had the highest percentage of correct answers. In practice, psychologists wanted to know how we behave in a task when one of the two persons is more skilled than the other.
In fact, it would make sense if we find that a person is more qualified for the assigned task to trust more on him/her and give greater value to his/her opinion. However, that wasn’t what happened.
Psychologists found that the less skilled partner often rejected the other’s opinion. However, the most surprising thing was that even the most skilled person overestimated the other’s opinion and devaluated the own one. In fact, to maintain the balance everyone acted as his/her partner. Therefore, none of the participants appeared to notice that one of the persons was more skilled than the other.
The researchers didn’t give up and included some variations in the experiment. In one of them they read the scores of each of the participant answers trying to tip the balance. In another case, they complicated the task to accentuate the differences between the scores and, finally, offered them money for the correct answers, thinking that maybe this incentive would encourage them to behave differently.
However, in all cases it was seen what these psychologists called: “Equality Bias”. In practice, if you feel inferior, you have the tendency to devalue the opinions of others and, if you feel superior, you will devalue yours to level yourself with the other. Meanwhile, we pretend that none of this happens.
Why we pretend?
The power exercised by the group on each of its members is huge, although we don’t always like to admit it. We all want to join the group to feel protected knowing we belong to something greater than ourselves.
Therefore, the less skilled person needs to feel that can bring something to the group, while the most capable person understands that shouldn’t hurt the feelings of his/her teammates if wants the cooperation to continue.
In many cases, these are attitudes that we assume automatically, we don’t even think but react carried away by our instincts. However, there is always a limit. The equality bias is not as positive as it seems.
In fact, behaving this way is counterproductive, especially when we’re in workgroups or when people need to learn. Of course, it doesn’t mean we have to devalue the opinion of others or hurt their feelings, but we must find a balance to allow us be more effective in the task we’re assigned and, in turn, help enhance others’ learning.
Pretending that something isn’t happening is never the answer, even for preventing conflicts, especially when they allow us to grow as persons.
Mahmoodia, a. et. Al. (2015) Equality bias impairs collective decision-making across cultures. PNAS; 112(12): 3835-3840.