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.

Takeaways

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.