While sports coaching may be increasingly statistics-dependent, people's assessment of performance overrides objective evidence in favour of comparison with others.
Oxford University researchers have been looking at how we judge our own performance and that of other people. Their conclusion – we confuse the two, especially if in groups such as sports teams.
If the team performs well, people overestimate themselves; if the team performs poorly, they underestimate themselves. The opposite happens in competition, where competing with a strong performer leads people to underestimate their own ability.
Marco Wittman, Department of Experimental Psychology
Lead researcher Marco Wittman explained: 'We judge ourselves all the time, from grades at school to how good our skills in playing football are. From a psychological-neuroscientific perspective, we know a lot about the mechanisms behind evaluating objects, but we know much less about the mechanisms that underlie the evaluation of ourselves and others.'
To find out more, participants performed simple games in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner and received explicit feedback about how well or badly they themselves and others performed. At the same time, the research group measured how good each person thought they and others were in playing the games.
Social psychology has already shown that people evaluate themselves in relation to each other. You might evaluate people you like more positively or evaluate people from a different group negatively. The researchers studied this by putting people in a cooperative or competitive context to see how that changed their evaluation of themselves and others.
Marco Wittman explained: 'People did not evaluate themselves and others independently. Although they were, as they should be, mostly guided by their own performance feedback, people's evaluation of themselves showed an influence of the other player. We called this influence self-other mergence. In a nutshell, it means that people tend to evaluate themselves similarly to the team in which they are playing. If the team performs well, people overestimate themselves; if the team performs poorly, they underestimate themselves. The opposite happens in competition, where competing with a strong performer leads people to underestimate their own ability.
'We also saw the opposite effect: one's own performance also influenced the evaluation of the other player. By analysing brain activity during the experiment, we identified an area in the frontal cortex – dorsomedial area 9 – that was responsible for learning about the other player. It was also in this area that we found signs of self-other mergence.'
The team say that what while the finding confirms assumptions based on earlier observation of how people judge themselves and others in a social context, what made this study different was that the participants had objective performance data showing how they had done, but partially discounted it.
Marco explained: 'Imagine you run the 100 metres in 15 seconds. How you feel about your performance is of course influenced by how well others do: You will be satisfied if everybody else took 20 seconds, but less so if everybody else took 10 seconds. If asked to estimate how long you will take in a re-run, your best guess would be 15 seconds, the same time as before. However, the self-other-mergence effect means that you will think you are a bit slower than that if you ran with strong competitors and a bit quicker if you ran against a weaker field.'
This effect could also partly explain winning and losing streaks – high-performing players in poorly performing teams will see themselves as doing less well, with a consequent effect on their morale, while poorer players in a successful team will have their confidence raised.
The researchers say that the effect may be explained by evolution – especially as the same brain area is related to hierarchies in monkeys. By shaping how we perceive our own abilities relative to others it helped us decide whether to attack or run when faced with a competitor, given the strength of allies that might offer support.
They also suggest that the brain area they identified may play a role in depression – where people often feel helplessness, underestimating their ability to deal with day-to-day experience.