The fascinating psychology behind why some people underestimate their intelligence

Have you ever questioned your intelligence despite overwhelming evidence of your capabilities and achievements? 

If so, you’re not alone. It turns out that intelligent people are their own worst critics. 

Is it because they aren’t aware of their cognitive skills? Or maybe they think their intelligence isn’t enough and thrive to improve themselves.

In any case, if you’re wondering why some people consistently underestimate their intelligence, you’re in the right place. In this article, I’ll provide a psychological perspective and discuss 8 reasons why you might be underestimating your intelligence.

8 psychological reasons why some people underestimate their intelligence

1) Imposter Syndrome

Ever experienced feelings of inadequacy despite the objective evidence of your abilities and accomplishments?

You know, it’s like feeling like a fraud even though you consistently thrive at work, in academic settings, or at anything you do.

If this sounds familiar, you might be one of those people who underestimate their intelligence because of imposter syndrome.

But what is imposter syndrome, and why does it lead some people to underestimate their intelligence?

Well, Imposter Syndrome is a phenomenon where an individual experiences persistent feelings of self-doubt, insecurity, and fear of being exposed as a fraud.

It’s like having a strong feeling that your success is not because of your own skills or intelligence. 

Instead, people who struggle with imposter syndrome believe that they’ve achieved success due to external factors such as luck or the help of others.

Sounds familiar?

Let me give you an example.

Imagine you’ve worked as hard as you could in order to get promoted, and you finally made it — you’re now in a leadership role, managing a team and overseeing important projects. 

But guess what?

Despite your hard work and accomplishments, you find yourself constantly doubting your abilities and worrying that your team or superiors will find out that you’re not as competent as they think. 

This internal belief that you’re not qualified for your role and that your success is due to luck, rather than your own skills and intelligence, is a common experience for those who suffer from imposter syndrome.

No wonder it can lead to self-doubt and a belief that one’s intelligence is not up to par, even in the face of success.

This means that people suffering from imposter syndrome undervalue their intelligence and believe that their success is due to external factors.

This is something we call “external attribution” in psychology. And I’ll define this phenomenon as another reason why people underestimate their intelligence. 

2) External attribution

One interesting fact I’ve figured out during my psychology classes is that locus of control can play a significant role in why some people underestimate their intelligence. 

If you’re not really into psychology, chances are that you haven’t heard of this term before.

Locus of control refers to the extent to which individuals believe they have control over the events in their lives. 

In simple words, it’s your perception of how much control you have over the things that happen in your life.

Think of it as a spectrum, with one end being “internal locus of control” – this means that a person believes they have a lot of control over what happens to them. 

On the other end is the “external locus of control” – this means that a person believes that the events in their lives are largely controlled by outside factors like luck, fate, or the actions of others.

The result? They attribute their success to luck instead of intelligence.

How is this related to underestimating intelligence?

Well, studies show that imposter syndrome is linked to an external locus of control, meaning that people with this syndrome explain their success with external factors instead of internal characteristics such as intelligence.

But the truth is that if you work really hard to achieve a particular thing, there’s a slight chance that circumstances such as luck can determine your success.

No, you haven’t achieved your goal because somebody else helped you or something happened as you wished. Instead, it happened because you’re intelligent, and your cognitive skills helped you figure out how to get what you wanted.

As simple as that.

So, the next time you start wondering why people underestimate their intelligence, think about external attribution, and you’ll immediately realize that explaining everything with environmental factors is simply wrong.

Don’t get me wrong, though, and don’t think that all the things you do wrong can be attributed to external factors. No, try to be mindful of your actions and take responsibility for things that are actually caused by you. 

3) Fear of failure

Have you ever noticed that some people avoid challenges or new experiences out of fear of failure?

If so, you might just think that it’s due to their personality traits, such as their lack of openness to experience or their close-mindedness.

But you know what?

Actually, they might just be so afraid of failure that they don’t even try.

Of course, this leads them to underestimate their intelligence and capabilities. What’s worse, they consider themselves losers.

But isn’t it true that “a real loser is someone who’s so afraid of not winning they don’t even try”?

This is my favorite quote from the movie “Little Miss Sunshine,” which sums up this phenomenon perfectly:

If you want to try something, go for it. But if you’re intelligent enough, you have to be prepared for failure. Why?

Because intelligent people understand that you can’t grow without experiencing failures along the way.

Yes, failures do help us grow, learn, and expand our skills.

On the other hand, the fear of failure can be a powerful force that holds people back from realizing their full potential.

People who fear failure may avoid challenging themselves or taking on new experiences, which can limit their exposure to new information and opportunities for learning. This lack of growth and development can result in an underestimation of their own intelligence.

That’s why I believe that we all have to take risks and try hard to realize our full potential, even at the expense of making mistakes and failing over and over again until we thrive.

4) Perfectionism

Did you know that a high level of perfectionism is associated with a low level of emotional intelligence?

Okay, perfectionism might not be directly related to intelligence, but as studies prove, perfectionists are at greater risk of developing maladaptive emotional self-regulation strategies.

How can this explain why some people underestimate their intelligence?

Well, let’s dive into this concept up close.

Perfectionism, the drive to achieve flawlessness in everything we do, can easily push people to underestimate their cognitive skills.

Think about it: if you hold yourself to an impossibly high standard, chances are you’ll never feel like you’ve done enough. No matter how much you achieve, it won’t be enough because you always want to be perfect.

It’s like running on a treadmill: no matter how far you go, you’ll never reach the finish line. And the same goes for our pursuit of perfection. We can never truly achieve it, so we end up feeling like we’ve failed, even when we’ve done really well.

But here’s the thing: 

Perfectionism is not only unrealistic, but it can also be incredibly detrimental to our mental and emotional well-being. 

It can lead to anxiety, stress, and a lack of self-esteem, causing us to doubt our own abilities and intelligence.

What’s more, it can also lead to procrastination, as people who strive for perfection may become paralyzed by their own high standards. As a result, they avoid starting projects or tasks for fear of failing to meet their own expectations.

This means that perfectionism can prevent individuals from recognizing their own strengths and abilities, leading them to underestimate their own intelligence. 

Still, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t strive for excellence. What I’m telling you is that it’s okay to make mistakes and that growth and learning often come from our experiences and challenges.

5) Social comparison

Imagine you’re in a class with several people who seem to have a better grasp of the material than you do. 

You might start to think to yourself, “Everyone else seems to understand this, but I don’t. I must not be as smart as they are.”

Does this sound familiar?

Well, then you should know that comparing oneself to others and focusing on their perceived strengths can lead to feelings of inferiority and a belief that one’s own intelligence is lacking.

To be honest, this was something I experienced firsthand during my school years. I constantly compared myself to my classmates and thought that if they understood something better than I did, then I must not be as intelligent as they were.

However, as I started studying psychology at university and learned about the dangers of social comparison, I came to understand that this way of thinking was a mistake. 

argue The fascinating psychology behind why some people underestimate their intelligence

I realized that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, and just because I wasn’t as strong in one area didn’t mean I was lacking in intelligence altogether.

That’s why I want you to remember this:

Understanding and embracing our unique strengths and abilities can help us develop a more accurate understanding of our own intelligence and capabilities, rather than letting social comparison hold us back. 

By recognizing and challenging these negative thoughts and comparisons, I was able to develop a more positive and accurate self-perception. 

Not surprisingly, since then, I’ve gone on to achieve success in my academic and professional pursuits.

6) Cognitive bias

Have you ever found yourself stuck in a certain way of thinking, even when presented with evidence to the contrary?

I have. Everyone has. Just admit it. 

We have our own unconscious biases and thought patterns that can distort our perception of reality.

This phenomenon is known as cognitive bias, and it can have a significant impact on our self-perception, including our perception of our intelligence.

For example, a while ago, my friend was telling me that her intelligence is fixed and cannot be improved upon. It goes without saying that she either underestimates or overestimates her intelligence

Similar to this, cognitive biases can lead us to underestimate our own intelligence and abilities, even when we have the evidence and skills to succeed.

The good news?

We can actually overcome our own cognitive biases. For this, we need to spend plenty of effort and be mindful of our own thoughts and actions.

By recognizing and challenging these unconscious thought patterns, we can expand our minds and develop a more accurate and positive understanding of our own intelligence and capabilities.

So, don’t let your unconscious thought patterns hold you back. 

Embrace the power of self-reflection and a growth mindset, and you’ll be amazed at what you can achieve. It’s never too late to break free from limiting beliefs and reach your full potential.

7) Lack of confidence 

Perhaps not surprisingly, many people underestimate their intelligence because of their lack of confidence. 

Low confidence can also result in the avoidance of new experiences and challenges, which in turn can limit personal and intellectual growth. 

When we avoid taking risks or pursuing new opportunities, we miss out on the chance to learn, grow, and expand our understanding of the world and ourselves.

That’s how it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and leads to further underestimation of your abilities.

If you’re wondering what it means, you should know that a self-fulfilling prophecy is one more psychological phenomenon related to those who underestimate their intelligence.

A self-fulfilling prophecy is when a person’s beliefs about themselves impact their actions and behavior, leading to the prediction or expectation coming true. 

In other words, if we believe we are not capable of achieving something, we may act in ways that prevent us from succeeding, thus making our belief a reality. 

But the great thing about this phenomenon is that, on the other hand, if we have confidence and a positive outlook, it can lead to improved performance and increased success.

Think about it.

Have you ever heard the saying, “what you believe, you can achieve?” 

Well, that’s essentially what a self-fulfilling prophecy is all about. It’s like a mental boomerang – your thoughts and beliefs can come back to shape your reality.

Let’s say you don’t think you’re good at public speaking. Chances are, you’ll be nervous and flustered every time you have to give a speech, and that nervous energy can actually make you perform worse. 

And voila! Your belief that you’re not a great public speaker becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But what if you believe in yourself and your abilities?

Then, you’re more likely to approach tasks with confidence and perform better, which can lead to even greater success and an increased sense of self-belief.

It’s such a powerful cycle!

So, don’t let your lack of confidence hold you back! Believe in yourself and your abilities, and never stop learning and growing.

8) Past negative experiences

If none of the reasons apply to you but you’re still underestimating your intelligence, let me take a guess:

You’ve had a bad experience in the past that made you doubt your intelligence or abilities.

We’ve all been there. 

Maybe you got a poor grade on a test or received critical feedback on a project that made you question your intelligence.

In either case, negative experiences in educational or professional settings, such as criticism from teachers or supervisors, can lead individuals to internalize the belief that they are not intelligent.

The result?

They doubt themselves constantly and underestimate their abilities.

Let’s admit it:

Past experiences, especially negative ones, can shape the way we see ourselves and our abilities. 

It’s like a lingering cloud that follows us around, making us underestimate our intelligence even when we’ve proven ourselves capable.

But here’s the thing:

It’s important to recognize that past experiences do not define us. What do I mean here?

Well, just because you had a bad experience in the past doesn’t mean you’re not intelligent. It means that you just had a bad experience, and that’s it!

Take my personal experience, for example. 

I remember struggling with physics in school and receiving constant criticism from my teacher. It made me feel like I was not smart enough. But then I took psychology courses in university and excelled in them. 

This showed me that intelligence is not just about being good at one subject but being knowledgeable and skilled in many.

It’s time to break free from those negative thoughts and believe in yourself again. Remember, our experiences and mistakes are just stepping stones toward growth and development.

Why do some people overestimate their intelligence?

After discussing the psychology behind why some people underestimate their intelligence, now you might be naturally wondering:

What about those who overestimate their intelligence when they’re not smart enough?

Well, it’s a logical question considering that most people think they’re above average.

Yes, you heard that right! According to CBS News, most people overestimate their IQ. In the classic, 1986 study, drivers rated themselves as better than average even if they were among the worst drivers.

How so?

They still had the chance to avoid accidents, however incompetent they were. The interesting thing is that this tendency is present in all ages.

How can I explain this?

Well, the fact that people overestimate their intelligence is related to the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

At its core, the Dunning-Kruger Effect is a type of cognitive bias in which people with low ability in a certain domain overestimate their ability. 

This is because they lack the metacognitive ability to accurately assess their own knowledge and skills, leading them to believe that they are much more capable than they actually are.

Consider a person who is poor at math but believes that they are a math genius. Despite the fact that they consistently perform poorly on math tests and struggle with basic mathematical concepts, they persist in thinking that they are exceptionally talented in this subject. 

This type of overestimation is a classic example of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

So guess what?

While intelligent people underestimate their abilities, underachievers overestimate their talents. At least, that’s what studies prove.

Tips to overcome self-doubt and increase self-awareness

For those who think they’re among those who underestimate their intelligence, I’m going to provide a few key strategies that can be helpful to overcome self-doubt.

The good news is that these steps once helped me to become more aware of my hidden talents and skills and stop doubting myself. 

  • First, it’s important to challenge negative thoughts and beliefs about yourself. This might mean talking to yourself in a more positive and supportive way or reframing past experiences in a more positive light.

Ask yourself, “Is this thought really true?” and “What evidence do I have to support this thought?” This will help you see things from a different perspective and increase your self-awareness.

  • Focus on your strengths and achievements rather than your weaknesses. Identify what you’re good at and what you enjoy doing, and make these things a priority in your life. This can help to boost your confidence and remind you of your capabilities. 
  • Embrace your failures. Try to understand that failure is a natural part of life and can actually be a great learning experience. Instead of viewing failure as a negative, consider it as an opportunity for growth and improvement.
  • The next step is to set achievable goals. Break down your larger goals into smaller, achievable steps. This will give you a sense of accomplishment and boost your confidence as you make progress.
  • Finally, try to cultivate a growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset. This means viewing your intelligence and abilities as something that can be developed and improved over time, rather than something that is set in stone. 

This type of mindset can help to increase motivation and perseverance, and it can also help to reduce the impact of failure on self-esteem.

I’m sure that you are capable of great things, and it’s time to start embracing your intelligence!

personality traits that show youre a smart woman 1 The fascinating psychology behind why some people underestimate their intelligence

Final thoughts

As you can see, our perception of our own intelligence is not always accurate. Instead, we could be influenced by various psychological mechanisms. 

Hopefully, after discussing these 8 reasons, you already understand why some people might be underestimating their intelligence. 

Still, it’s important to remember that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, and it’s up to us to build our confidence and trust in our abilities.

So, don’t let these psychological factors hold you back. Embrace your individuality and don’t compare yourself to others!

Picture of Nato Lagidze

Nato Lagidze

Nato is a writer and a researcher with an academic background in psychology. She investigates self-compassion, emotional intelligence, psychological well-being, and the ways people make decisions. Writing about recent trends in the movie industry is her other hobby, alongside music, art, culture, and social influences. She dreams to create an uplifting documentary one day, inspired by her experiences with strangers.

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