Is It True That We Tend to Underestimate Our Abilities, or Is This Just Wishful Thinking?

It was the beginning of my sophomore year in college, and I had just returned to school from one of the most musically inspiring and confidence-boosting summers of my life. It started with a chamber music intensive in Israel, where I got to work with faculty that I never imagined I would have the opportunity to meet, let alone study with. And it ended with an orchestral fellowship at a second festival where I got to play amongst future principals and concertmasters and sit closer to the conductor than I ever had before. Needless to say, I was feeling pretty good about things, and looking forward to a productive year.

And then, out of nowhere, I hit a major confidence slump. Specifically, I started questioning my own ability and level of playing. In other words, I couldn’t tell if I was playing well, or if the reality was that I sounded like crap and was simply deluding myself into thinking that I sounded ok.

I remember sitting in studio class, listening to my classmates play, feeling increasingly discouraged and demoralized, as it began to feel like everyone sounded better than I did.

I know, I know – I shouldn’t have been trying to compare myself to others, but I was grasping for some sort of anchor, or reference point.

Then I came across a book which suggested that we tend to underestimate ourselves, and overestimate others. This was an encouraging thought, but then I wondered…is this just one of those reassuring things psychologists like to say? Or is there some truth to this?

How do we know how good we are?

A team of British researchers recruited 24 participants to participate in a study designed to learn more about how we judge our own abilities. They knew that past performances play a big role in judgments of ability, but they suspected that there was more to it than that. Specifically, they thought that others’ performances might also play a role in how we gauge our own abilities.

Time for some games

Participants engaged in a series of short mini-games, and were told that two other individuals would be playing the game at the same time.

After each round, the participants received feedback about their performance, as well as the other players’ scores. The feedback was fake, of course, and was predetermined in advance to manipulate how well (or poorly) the participants thought they were doing relative to the other players.

In addition, before each round, the participants were asked to predict how well they would do in the upcoming round, which gave the researchers a pretty good idea of what the participants thought of their abilities.

All pretty straightforward so far. But this is where the fun starts.

Cooperation vs. competition

On some turns, participants were given the option to cooperate with one of the other players as a team, where their scores would be added together. If their combined score was high enough, they would win points (that could be traded in for money after the study). If they went alone, whether or not they won points would be up to random chance. So in theory, you would think that they’d choose to team up if paired with a high performer. And that they’d be more likely to opt out of playing as a team, if paired with a low performer.

On other turns, participants were given the option of competing with one of the other players. They could win points here too, but only if they beat the other player’s score. In this scenario, you would think that they’d be more likely to compete if matched up against a low performer, and less likely to do so if matched up against a high performer.

So what happened?

Past performance matters – but that’s not all

The researchers found that we do seem to estimate our own (and others’) abilities based on past performances. The better a participant performed in one round, the better they thought they would do in the next round. So it’s not surprising that participants were more inclined to cooperate with high performers and compete against low performers.

Then the researchers dug a little deeper to see if the other players’ performance had any effect on the participants’ judgments of their own ability. And indeed it did.

Others’ performances influence estimates of our own ability

When paired up (cooperation) with a strong performer, participants’ were more likely to predict that they would perform well in the next round. When paired with a weak performer, they were more likely to predict a poorer performance. In other words, participants’ confidence in their own abilities tended to rise and fall with the performance of their teammate.

Want to guess what happened when it was time to compete?

Everything flipped when it came time to engage in competition. When matched up against a strong performer, participants evaluated themselves more negatively and predicted a poorer performance. When pitted against a weaker player, they evaluated themselves more positively and were more inclined to think they would perform well.

So it’s as if going up against someone whom we regard as a strong player suddenly makes us more aware of all of our weak areas – leading to an underestimation of our abilities.


I think this speaks to the importance of taping ourselves regularly, and using ourselves as our primary measuring stick. To gauge our current abilities and level of playing relative to last week’s version of us. Or last year’s version of us.

Sure, it can be helpful to see what others are doing and to get inspiration from their beautiful sound, technical facility, inspired bowings/fingers, etc. But as a strategy for building confidence? Meh, we’re too likely to sell ourselves short, gloss over our unique strengths and talents, and dig ourselves into a hole of discouragement and demoralization.

Far better to forgo the comparison game, and devise personally meaningful mastery goals. That is, goals related to learning, developing, refining, honing, and expanding our skills – as opposed to simply outperforming others.

And you know that tendency to think that we are suddenly regressing and sounding worse and worse in the last week before an audition? The findings of this study suggest that this is the perfect time to remind ourselves of the tendency to underestimate our playing in the face of competition. And rather than whipping ourselves into a practice frenzy, we’ll probably be better off redirecting our attention to staying the course, getting plenty of rest, and making sure we don’t sabotage all the work and careful planning we have done to peak at just the right time.

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.


5 Responses

  1. We’ve talked to each other upon occasion, Noa, and this subject resonates with me, for personal reasons. All I want to say is that when we are in competition with others, we tend to be severe self-critics. On the other hand, when we only are concerned with our level of abilities, and then work effectively to improve them to be noticed by ourselves (admittedly a luxury, when getting more proficient may affect our position in life, for various reasons), by taking enough time, we can succeed in getting better at what we want to become better at. Here, time is the crucial factor; when we don’t have sufficient time to do this, it may mean discontinuing the effort. This is where deadlines on improvement become a factor, and I’m not dismissing their importance. I’d bet that what you have to offer in this area would be most helpful when time is of the essence. I’d be interested in seeing what this unit you have prepared has to offer to get perfdormers to improve, in a timely fashion!

  2. Pairing up with a strong performer should tend to make us better, due to the tendency to syncronize us with that player because of the Mirror Neuron System;. As a consequence one should try to syncronize with a better “rival”, to fight the tendency to compare or fall into the abyss of selfdepreciation! Doing the latter tends to make us deaf/unreceptive to the
    On the other hand, good enough self-knowledge helps us withstand the influence of charismatic madmen, the prevalence of whom is so abundant these days……Specifically I mean that one should learn to be able to differentiate when something seems out of tune. “Cuidado con los jugadores falsos” as they say in Spanish. Balancing is difficult indeed.

  3. I needed read this today.
    I was fired in a gig recently. And I know I did a good job and improved my playing in such gig. But be fired in a gig, suddenly, shaken my self-steem. Things like ” what do the others have that I haven’t?” And ” what I have done to deserve this?” Started to passes by my mind. And I know, and my recently curriculum proves that I am really capable. I don’t need to compare myself with others musicians trying to find out “what I have done?”
    Thanks one more time.

  4. I know that everytime I hear my speaking voice played back in a recording, I am always shocked by how ghastly I actually sound to others– totally different from what I “think” I sound like. Shudders! So I have a similar fear of my playing– what if what I “think” I’m playing is totally glorious to me, but sounds completely awful to others? Worse yet– and nobody ever told me (gently of course)? The film “Florence Foster Jenkins” didn’t help much with such fears! I’m afraid to record my playing for fear it will be so awful I’ll never touch my instrument again.

    1. Hi Cindy,

      This is a tricky fear – but actually, I think in most cases we generally sound better on the recording than we thought we did while playing. And even if we do sound worse in the recording, it’s a helpful way of ensuring we know exactly what to work on, so we sound better the next time we play!

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