Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Worse-Than-Average Effect: Maybe You're Too Tough on Yourself

Here’s an interesting thought: Even when you’re lacking confidence, you can still be egocentric. You might ask, how can this be? It’s a natural inclination to think that just because you’re unsure or non-boastful about your abilities that you’re ego-less. Well, that’s simply not true.

There’s a cognitive bias in psychology called the worse-than-average effect. This is when we underestimate our abilities and fail to recognize how good we are at a particular task, whether it be sports, competitive games or music. This is because, as stated by Dr. Justin Kruger, from the Department of Psychology at Cornell University,  “When people compare themselves with their peers, they focus egocentrically on their own skills and insufficiently take into account the skills of the comparison group.”

As you can see, the worse –than-average effect is not the same as an inferiority complex. This cognitive bias results from being misinformed or under-informed about one’s own skill sets and those of others. I’m sure we’ve come across those shed-heads from college who have amazing abilities; yet, the feel that they suck.

And this goes back to what I said earlier in that lacking confidence can come from being egocentric. The reason that many of these macro-shedders feel they are inadequate, even though they have more skill and knowledge than their peers, is not because of how they feel about their playing in comparison to others, but as a result of them microscopically examining everything that they do.  If they were to compare their abilities, apple to apple, orange to orange, with other players, they would realize that they are much more competent than they realize. If they would get out of their own head for just a moment, they would actually hear the shortcomings in the playing of their peers, consequently, developing a more realistic assessment of their own abilities.

People who knew me when I was eighteen and nineteen years old know that I had a reputation for throwing my instrument into my saxophone case after sitting in on just one tune, and running out of the club with my head hanging in shame because I felt I played so badly. I still shake my head in disbelief every time I remember those days. And this was a classic example of the worse-than-average effect.  I’m willing bet that in many of the settings, I was at least in the 75 percentile with regards to skill sets of the players on the bandstand. I was certainly not the best player on the stage, but I was far from the worst.  

And this is how the worse-than-average effect differs from an inferiority complex. Had I had an inferiority complex, I would have walked out of the club in shame because I felt I got  my head handed to me—which is jazz talk having been outperformed by your peers. Instead, I was viewing everything through an ego-centric-lens. I never even took into account how anyone else sounded.  

Having your own standards can be an admirable quality, and sometimes can be very necessary to one’s effort to progress at their own pace. However, to over-assess or over-critique your performance to the point where you grossly under-estimate your abilities is as detrimental as over-estimating your abilities.

While I was living in Boston during the late eighties, I heard numerous players who never left Boston because they could never get past the stage of feeling that everything that they played, sucked. And this, by the way, is the danger of the worse-than-average effect: Your perspective on your own abilities are so skewed, consequently, you can never follow a sequence of events to further your career. It’s one thing not to move to New York because you feel everyone here plays better than you. However, it’s another thing not to move to here simply because you feel you are incompetent. And I’m not insinuating that musicians who don’t move to New York don’t do so out of fear. They are great players all over the world. In fact, some of the most original players I've heard live in other parts of the country and world. I'm speaking of a very specific personality type. 

But I remember walking up to some of these players after hearing them play to offer praise for their music, only to be greeted with, “No, man. That was horrible. No, you sound good. I suck.” Even though I probably had a third of their ability, they somehow convinced themselves that they sounded horrible; yet, I, the 20-year-old kid with a fraction of their skill sets was somehow “playing the shit.” It’s really ludicrous when you think about it.

However, when it comes right down to it, much of this cognitive bias is rooted in fear— a hit-myself-before-others-hit-me type of coping mechanism. What better way to protect you from experiencing feelings of failure, embarrassment, or critique from others, than by convincing yourself out of trying something altogether? If you’re constantly saying, “I suck,” than you don’t have to worry about other people saying it.
This has also been referred to as self-handicapping.

So as you can see, the worse-than-average effect is not a person being humble, but it’s a real cognitive bias.

But it’s not all so gloom. As with most cognitive biases, you can practice exercises that help you to see things more objectively.

Here are a few things that has worked for me:

  1. When you listen to someone else play, pretend it’s you who’s playing and see if you’re as forgiving. You’ll be surprised at how overly critical you become.
  2. Or when listening to a recording of yourself, pretend it’s someone else. It will teach you to hear things from another person’s perspective. And this is more difficult to do than number 1. However, it will most likely yield the opposite results. During this experiment, you’ll find yourself becoming less critical.
  3. Instead of assessing your abilities in a general sense, learn to objectively hone in on specific aspects of your playing—sound, time, technique, etc. To feel that you are incompetent in specific areas can be helpful, but to feel that you are just plain old incompetent is harmful.

 As I said, the good news about the worse-than-average effect is that you can redirect your thinking, consequently, arriving at different results. Fortunately, for me, I don’t throw my horn in the case anymore and run off of the bandstand with my head down in shame.  And it’s not because I no longer play badly. I do that plenty. The difference now is that I look at things a bit more analytically and objectively. I know that in the world of creative arts, thinking about your work cerebrally is often shunned upon. In this case, however, it might be your only means of survival and progress.


  1. I found I had to keep on getting back up on the stand until that "inner editor" just faded away. And, oh yeah, I have to practice.

  2. Getting back on the saddle (or the bandstand) is a must if you want to learn to ride (or play)!


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