How much insight do you have into your own mental and emotional abilities, such as verbal intelligence, spatial cognition and interpersonal skills? Might your friends have a better idea of your strengths and weaknesses than you do? In a new paper in the journal Heliyon, a team led by Aljoscha Neubauer explain that while such questions of self- vs. other-insight have already been looked at in the context of the main personality traits and general IQ, theirs is the first investigation in the context of more specific abilities. It’s an important issue for young people, they add, since choosing career paths that play to our abilities can increase the chances of later success – but it remains an open question whether and for which abilities people should rely on their own judgments or seek the advice of others.
The researchers recruited 233 participants in their mid-teens (average age 14) and 215 participants in their late teens (average age 18). Participants completed six tests, including: established measures of their verbal, numerical and spatial abilities; a test of divergent creativity (thinking up novel uses for an umbrella, plastic bottle and shoe); and a questionnaire tapping their intra- and interpersonal emotional management (based on the participants’ selection of the best way to deal with various social and emotional scenarios).
Immediately after completing the tests, the participants filled out an additional questionnaire asking them to reflect on and estimate their own abilities in the various domains that had been tested. Finally, they also completed the same questionnaire in relation to the abilities of one or more of their school classmates (such that each participant rated themselves and was also rated by two of their classmates).
The participants were very poor at judging their own verbal ability and their judgments of their peers’ verbal abilities were not much better – a result that the researchers described as their “most puzzling”, considering you’d think such abilities would be apparent both to oneself and one’s peers, especially in a school context. One possible explanation is that the teenagers’ conception of verbal intelligence “might not correspond” with the researchers’ conception and the way it was tested; another explanation, the researchers suggested, is that the participants verbal IQ was perhaps rather low and “individuals of lower verbal ability might be particularly weak at self- and peer estimating because this might require exactly what they are missing: a good verbal ability”.
In contrast with verbal intelligence, participants had some accurate insight into their own creativity, and even more insight into the creativity of their peers.
Meanwhile, for spatial ability an age difference emerged. At age 14, as with verbal ability, participants were poor at judging their own and each other’s spatial ability. By age 18, by contrast, participants had some accuracy at judging their own spatial abilities, but not their peers’ abilities.
In relation to interpersonal competence, the participants had a degree of insight into their own abilities, but not each other’s (perhaps because they simply scored how much they liked the person they were rating rather than offering an unbiased estimate of their social and emotional skills). One detail here is that their ability to estimate their peers’ interpersonal skills increased “considerably” at age 18, compared with 14, albeit that this accuracy was still relatively poor.
Finally, as the researchers expected, the participants’ were able to estimate their own intra-personal abilities with some accuracy, but not the intra-personal abilities of their peers (presumably because our inner emotional worlds are hidden to an extent).
Neubauer and his colleagues said their findings have “important practical implications”, particularly in the context of young people choosing their career paths. While they acknowledged their findings need replicating, they suggested that for some domains, especially verbal IQ, young people appear to have surprising ignorance of their own ability (or lack of ability). Even for those abilities where participants had more insight (into themselves and their peers), it’s worth noting that this was relatively modest, with their judgments accounting for only between 15 and 20 per cent of the variance in ability between participants.
Future research could test other age groups, and look at the judgments made by other informants besides participants’ peers, such as family members, to see if they would have greater insight into participants’ abilities. (The current study included a measure of friendship closeness but found no evidence that this affected the participants’ accuracy in judging their peers’ abilities.)
The researchers concluded that “As young people might have biased views of their own but also of their peers’ abilities, scientifically based career counselling should include not only tests for interests but also performance tests to avoid erroneous vocational decisions.”