We Each Think We're Doing Most of the Work

We Each Think We're Doing Most of the Work

We Each Think We're Doing Most of the Work

How to be happier.
Jan. 13 2009 9:20 AM

We Each Think We're Doing Most of the Work

One of the fun things about law school—and you thought there wasn’t anything fun about law school!—was the new vocabulary we all picked up. A new word lets you have a new idea.

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I remember that after I learned the concept of "acting in reliance," suddenly I saw people acting in reliance all over the place. (For example, when my friend John signed a lease for a two-bedroom apartment because Michael promised to room with him, he’d acted in reliance, and so when Michael wanted to move in with his girlfriend instead, John was entitled to hold him to his word.)

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I’ve picked up a useful term from psychology: unconscious overclaiming . It’s certainly something I’m guilty of.

Unconscious overclaiming is the phenomenon in which we unconsciously overestimate our contributions or skills relative to other people’s. In one study, for example, when students in a work group each estimated their contribution to the team, the total was 139 percent.

This makes sense, because we’re far more aware of what we do than what other people do. I complain about the time I spend paying bills, but I overlook the time my husband spends dealing with our car. Also, we tend to concentrate our efforts in the areas that we think are important, so we think our contributions are the more valuable. You might think that getting the weekly reports finished on time is very important while your co-worker emphasizes prepping for a presentation.

It’s easy to see how overclaiming can lead you to an inflated sense of your contribution, and from there, to resentment. Now that I’ve learned about unconscious overclaiming, when I find myself thinking, "I’m the only one around here who bothers to …" or "Why do I always have to be the one who …?" I try to remind myself of all the tasks I don’t do.

Unconscious overclaiming is related to the "Lake Wobegon fallacy," which describes the fact that we all fancy ourselves above average. (It’s named for Garrison Keillor’s imaginary town of Lake Wobegon, where "all the children are above average.") Studies show that most people think they’re above average in fairness, luck, popularity, investing ability, and many other traits. In one survey, 80 percent of respondents put themselves in the top 30 percent of all drivers.

I love the mere word overclaiming . It’s perfect for what it describes.

* A thoughtful reader sent me the link to a great post, What I've Learned: Julia Child . I have my True Rules series; this is a list of True Rules from Julia Child.

** Interested in starting your own Happiness Project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just e-mail me at grubin, then the "at" sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than "Resolutions Chart" in the subject line.