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Job applicants and how to sell tomatoes

September 8, 2019

Act I Scene I: London. A market.


MERCHANT: Tomatoes! Fresh tomatoes!

CUSTOMER: How much for 10 tomatoes?

MERCHANT: Only £1, mate.

CUSTOMER: It’s too much. I’ll give you 50p.

MERCHANT: All right, Take them.

[MERCHANT exits]

CUSTOMER: These tomatoes are plump, red, and juicy. I would have paid double. Thank god he didn’t know what his tomatoes were worth.

The best underestimate

In our last article, we looked at how the average person overestimates himself. We considered how job applicants suffer from the same overconfidence. Let’s return to a chart in that article.

The graph shows how well students did on a Law School Admission Test (Kruger and Dunning, 1999). The x-axis shows quartiles, i.e. the top and worst students on that test. The y-axis shows percentiles. The blue line shows how well students thought they did. The green line shows how they actually did.

The worst students, for example, were on average in the 12th percentile. But they thought that they were in the 62nd percentile. This isn’t new. But now let’s look at the red circle. Here we can see the best students. They, on average, thought they were in the 66th percentile. They were, however, actually in the 86th percentile.

Underconfident competence

Psychologists tested top performers in many domains. The findings were consistent: as a group, they underestimate themselves. For example, Dunning et al (2003) asked US students how well they did in a psychology class. Top students thought they were on average in the 80th percentile. Actually, they were in the 86th.

Kim et al (2016) asked 4,000 high-school students in Hong Kong how well they thought they solved riddles. The researchers (2016) found that the best students thought they were in the 50th percentile. Actually, they were in the 86th.

Why top performers are underconfident

Kruger and Dunning (1999) asked students to complete a grammar test and asked them how well they thought they did. On average, they thought they were in 70th percentile..

Afterwards, they invited the best students to return and mark the grammar tests of their peers. After marking, Kruger and Dunning (1999) allowed students to adjust their estimate. Students saw how their peers did. They saw that their peers did worse. So the best students adjusted their estimate. Now, they thought they were in the 80th percentile.

Students adjusted estimate was more accurate than their first (because they actually were in the 86th percentile). So here is one reason for underconfidence: the best students weren’t unsure about how well they did. They overestimated how well others did.

Why did the best students become more accurate? Because grading peers was feedback. When they saw how others did, they knew they did better.

Job applicants need accurate feedback

The merchant selling his tomatoes needs to know what they are worth. If he charges too little, he’ll lose out. If he charges too much, no one buys. Tomatoes need to have the right price. Job applicants need to have the right amount of confidence.

It is difficult for the average job applicant to get an accurate estimate of his worth. Poor Alexander provides a solution to this problem. Our recording interface allows job applicants to measure their performance and compare it to sample answers. Above all, job applicants can get personalised feedback from those who hired job applicants.


Dunning, D., Johnson, K, Ehrlinger, J., and Kruger, J. (2003), ‘Why people fail to recognise their own incompetence.’ Current Directions in Psychological Science. 12(3), 83–87.

Kim, Y., Kwon, H., Lee, J., and Chiu, C. (2016), ‘Why do people overestimate or underestimate their abilities? A cross-culturally valid model of cognitive and motivational processes in self-assessment biases.’ Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology. 47(9), 1201–1216.

Kruger, J. and Dunning, D. (1999), ‘Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 77(6), 1121–1134.

About this blog

Poor Alexander is a website that helps job applicants do well in interviews. Here we write about interviews, CVs, employment, money, and psychology. Our articles are based on the primary research we do, the literature we review, and our own experience.

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