The American Idol Dilemma: How Good Are People at Assessing Their Own Creative Talents?

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How good are you at accurately assessing your creative talents?  The chances are that you are not as good as you think! The correlation between self-assessment of skills and actual performance across various domains ranges from moderate to poor.  Other people’s predictions of a person’s outcomes prove more accurate than that person’s own self-predictions.  Social psychologists often find that people have a tendency to overestimate their own abilities. 

Some researchers feel that this is due to the regression toward the mean, a statistical phenomenon that finds that if people are on the low end of a distribution, they will naturally rank themselves higher simply because their perceptions of ability are not correlated with actual ability.  For example, if you ask people what they rank their IQ at, with 100 being average, chances are the majority of people would rate themselves as above average in intelligence. 

Yet is this also evident in the realm of creativity?  Think of American Idol as anecdotal evidence that people who with very limited creative abilities may have an inflated sense of their own competency. In the case of creativity, however, these people are the exception rather then the rule. Researchers at California State University, San Bernardino recently found that people’s perception of their own creativity tends to be accurate.  They assessed this by asking people to rate their own creativity as compared to other people and then gave them a creative personality assessment (think of this as the J Lo test) and a test of their actual creative ability (and this can be thought of as the Randy Jackson test). 

They found correlations between self-assessments and both measures of creativity.  Specifically, those in the higher range of creativity were better able to assess their creativity, which suggests that those who ranked themselves high in creativity thus self-identified with being creative and were more motivated to demonstrate their creativity on actual assessments.  Unfortunately, people in the middle also had a tendency to rate themselves as being high in creativity.  However, the good news is people who are low in creativity are painfully aware that yes they cannot paint their way out of paper bag.

So let us put the results of this study in the American Idol framework.  If you are not a good singer, people have probably told you so for a very long time and you are aware that you are not good.  However, you try out for the show anyway with a wacky costume hoping they like your personality. The judges don’t like either your singing or your look and you are sent home with the self-satisfaction of knowing that you did it your way.

Then we have the rock stars; the talented people, who have been trained, properly encouraged, and who have the swagger to back it up.  They know they are good and most importantly Steven, JLo, and Randy know it too.  Some people may find that to be the most boring part of the show because of its predictability. 

If you are a mediocre singer, you are probably the most interesting contestant of all.  People your whole life have encouraged you to keep trying.  Nobody wants to hurt your feelings because you might be able to make it with a little effort.  Sadly, without that negative feedback you most likely have an over inflated sense of your talents. Hence, you audition, you bring the family, you have packed your bags, and you are going to Hollywood, right?  Wrong.  These are the people we see who are so unaware of reality that they are crushed, confused, and even agitated at the judges for refusing to see their awesome potential.

Unfortunately, this is what the real American Idol problem is.  It raises questions that cannot be so neatly answered, such as when do you stop encouraging a person who obviously has no talent?  You should consider how much time and energy is being put into their creative activities and if the bad outweigh the good then break it to them gently.  If they refuse to listen your advice, videotape them, and try not to exploit them to badly when you post it on YouTube. 


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