Superiority bias in training and performance

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Lately I have been researching something that directly relates to the psychology of all Martial Arts students and our attitudes/behaviour in life. The first concept is ‘Optimism bias’ which led me to another concept that I believe we could attempt to acknowledge and then use our understanding of this theory to enhance our performance and ability to learn.

This theory is called ‘Superiority bias’. In no means am I a psychologist or scientist of any sort, so this is not an academic lecture. I studied some basic psychology concepts and subjects in University, but that’s as far as it goes. So this blog is derived from my research and experience as a Coach and Athlete.

So, what is Superiority bias? To summarize it easily, it is when we overrate our own positive qualities and abilities and underrate our negative ones by comparing it with others. It is also known as ‘Illusory Superiority’. You may think you are better than the ‘average’, more popular than the ‘average’, have greater abilities than the ‘average’ and so on. Basically, you believe in most areas of your life you are better than the ‘norm’ and unfortunately chances are you not.

In one of many studies displaying the effect of ‘Superiority bias’, 87% of MBA students at Stanford rated their academic performance as above the median. Clearly that is impossible. Im sure we have all stated at sometime that we are better drivers than others or smarter than others, statistics show that is impossible.

Don’t be disheartened by this thought, Im sure you might be better than average in some areas in life and this effect might even help us perform better in certain areas of our life through confidence, belief, etc . Although statistically, we cannot be exceptional at everything.

However, it is something to be aware of when assessing our skills, attitude and behaviour in most areas of our lives. I would like to put it in terms of my experience coaching fighters and Martial Arts students and even being coached. Superiority bias is something I am sure we have all done before whilst learning from a Coach, School teacher, etc. The Coach/Teacher tells us something generally to a group and you think that mustn’t be me he/she is talking about, it must be someone else.

Another great example of this bias occurring in training is when addressing weakness individually, when preparing an athlete or student for competitions, some believe that that they are sufficient in their skills when coaches or training partners may know otherwise, they are ready to go, can ‘take’ anyone, and have a great sense of false confidence. They are statistically not going to be undefeated, those less developed skills will not develop while the athlete/student believes they are above average, and their low preparation time/lack of preparation time will decrease their chances of victory. Believing you are above average may have a greater negative effect on your training and performances than relying on your confidence and belief.

What if you were thinking this under Superiority bias? How do you learn or accept this feedback?..You probably will not. You will assume your said skills or attitude are above average over others and then continue to carry those limited skills or attitude creating a non progressive cycle rather a cycle of improvement.

On Reflection, How many times do you think this has happened to you throughout life?

Im sure you have heard of successful Athletes and Professionals state that they ‘try to listen and learn from anyone’ or ‘having an open mind’ has helped their careers. Maybe this ability to push or reduce this bias has enhanced their learning or performance?

Now..the flip side to Superiority bias! You can end up thinking you are immune to this bias and this is referred to the ‘bias blind spot’. So not only can you think you are better or above average, you can believe you are not capable of being biased like ‘the others’. Now that you know you may also fall into a false state of naivety, you can accept that you do and most likely always will have ‘superiority bias’ , but now its important that you use this state of awareness to help create understanding and create behavioural change.

Can we develop a strategy to prevent this bias from happening so frequently? One idea is attempt to realize that you have minimal knowledge of a subject no matter however long you have been learning or doing it for, you will become less likely to judge their attitude or skills over your own as well.

Don’t forget you can take a look at our other regular training blogs that attempt to tackle the questions and concepts that you face each day in training. These little thoughts and ideas may bring you a little step closer to your training goals and increased performance.

Coach David

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