A psychology study performed in 1977 – The College-BowlStudy (Ross, Amabile, and Steinmetz, 1977) – demonstrated afascinating piece of human psychology, which was that people wouldover- or underestimate people’s intelligence relative to their own,attributing undemonstrated qualities to them, based upon role orsituation. They called this an “attribution error”.
In the study subjects were split into two groups: thequizmasters and the contestants. The quizmasters were tasked withcoming up with some challenging-but-not-impossible questions, whichthey then presented to the contestants as pairs. Invariably thecontestants did poorly, as the quizmasters naturally relied upontheir own unique proficiencies for material: Whether they quizzedabout classical music, famous art, the Altair 8800, or chemistry,their knowledge (and thus what they thought was “challenging butnot impossible”) differed greatly from the contestants, as shouldbe expected among a diverse group of people.
Amazingly, when asked afterwards about the intelligence of eachother, the contestants overwhelmingly estimated the intelligenceand knowledge of the quizmasters as greater than their own.Similarly, in a follow-up study an observer was added, and againthe observer believed the the quizmaster was more intelligent thanthe contestant.
Of course this was a completely ridiculous conclusion: Not onlywere they randomly assigned arbitrary roles, but general knowledgetests applied across the group showed no correlation between roleand intelligence. Logically it seems probable that there is atremendous bulk of knowledge that the contestant holds that thequestioner does not, but because it wasn’t demonstrated it wasunaccounted for. Out of “sight”, out of mind.
This basic human tendency is pervasive, and it goes both ways:Some of us underestimate ourselves because we don’t have the (oftenartificial, superficial, or temporal) domain knowledge of others(“I just saw an episode of Numbers, and boy do I feel dumbnow…“), while others under-estimate people who don’t sharetheir particular grab-bag of facts (“Boy that guy is an idiot!The guy didn’t even know what OPML is!“. Us nerds areparticularly guilty of this, discounting the incredible arrayof knowledge and skills that people in other fields have,instead judging them on their knowledge of Linux distros oresoteric Windows shortcut keys. This is a tremendous vice).
Take advantage of this human trait! The next time you’re havinga big meeting, bone up on fringe facts and edge questions for yourpeers. Learn some irrelevant facts about an uncommon area – forinstance beetles or metallurgy – and bring it up at everyopportunity. I just took advantage of this myself, talkingabout the fairly obvious observations of a 28-year old study.Aren’t I clever.