Why Everyone Thinks They’re Doing All the Work

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Unhappy overworked businessman sitting at desk holding papers
Photo: H. ARMSTRONG ROBERTS/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

No one does any work around here but me, you think to yourself, awash in self-pity during another late night at the office. Never mind the fact that plenty of your colleagues got to the office much earlier than you did, still more are working remotely, and you probably allowed yourself more Twitter breaks during the day than you can honestly justify. 

The truth is that most people believe they’re doing more than their fair share of the work. It’s a quirk of human egocentrism psychologists call overclaiming, and social scientists have observed the phenomenon among groups as varied as M.B.A. students, academics, ROTC cadets, college basketball teammates, and married couples. When researchers ask members of these groups to estimate what percentage of the work they felt they’d contributed to some project, as the experiment often goes, the cumulative result is almost always far north of 100 percent. 

Obviously, in any group — despite what college football coaches tell us — you can’t do 110 percent,” said Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, who has studied (and helped coin the term) overclaiming. In one paper, published in 2006, Epley and some colleagues from Harvard tackled a subject academics often scuffle over: authorship on academic journal articles. When they asked the authors of psychology journal articles what percentage of the work they believed they contributed to the finished product, and then added up those percentages, the total was a logic-defying 140 percent. Another experiment described in that paper was conducted among study groups of M.B.A. students — there, the claims of credit for group work accomplished over the semester added up to 130 percent on average. 

Another study brought the issue closer to home, literally. Back in 1979, researchers at the University of Waterloo interviewed married couples, giving them a list of activities — positive things like household chores, but also negative things like picking fights — and asking them to rate how responsible they felt for each item. The couples’ answers suggested they were overestimating their contributions.

Interestingly, though, the couples were just as likely to overestimate their contributions to negative stuff as they were to take credit for the good things. This suggests that overclaiming isn’t only the result of an egotistic desire to feel good about things, or believing in your own superiority over everyone else’s. It’s more about egocentrism: You’re hardly even aware of everyone else. Since other people’s thoughts and (sometimes) actions are hidden from you, there’s a natural tendency or bias to focus more on your own. 

Epley is currently working on two new papers on this subject, one of which suggests another possible explanation for overclaiming in the workplace: People wrongly assume that time spent on a project is productive time spent on a project, and claim credit accordingly. In one of these recent experiments, Epley’s team broke participants into groups of three, instructing two of them to solve word puzzles and the third to simply sit back and observe, or, in another condition, to act as a supervisor and “try to level the synergies of the group.” (Seriously, this is the language they used.)

And they tried to do that — they tried to ‘leverage the synergies,’” Epley said. But the supervisor role is really “bullshit work — it’s not like you’re solving the word problems,” he added. And yet the study volunteers who were asked to act as supervisors ended up claiming to have done more work, when their answers were compared to those who were just observing. The supervisors really believed that their synergistic efforts had influenced the outcome of the task; in reality, however, the scores of both groups were about the same. People like awarding themselves E’s for effort, another tendency that can result in claiming more credit than you really earned. 

So how do you untangle yourself from this bias, and form a more accurate picture of your contributions as compared to your colleagues’, or your partner’s? It’s surprisingly easy. “Unlike lots of afflictions that you can’t do anything about, you can overcome this with just a little bit of attention paid to everyone else,” Epley said, referencing again that 2006 paper on overclaiming, which he co-authored with Eugene M. Caruso of Harvard. In one experiment, the researchers simply asked people to take a minute to consider the contributions of their teammates before they considered their own. “We find that this exercise reduces, and sometimes eliminates, overclaiming of credit,” Caruso said in an email. 

Consciously getting out of your own egocentric head for a minute, then, seems to be a simple way to talk yourself down when you’re about to throw a righteous indignation-fueled tantrum. (“Cool it there, Ms. Self-Centered,” as Epley phrased it. “You’re probably not the only one doing work.”) And being aware of this human tendency will likely improve your relationships, too, as writer Gretchen Rubin recently discussed on her new (and incredibly charming) podcast, “Happier,” which is where I first heard about overclaiming. 

Now, when I catch myself feeling resentful [or] smug about something I do, I remind myself of something I don’t do,” Rubin told me in an email. This new mode of thinking is often to the benefit of her relationship with her husband, Jamie. “So when I think, Jamie doesn’t lift a finger to help with the holiday cards (true), I remind myself, I don’t lift a finger to help with the car (also true).”

So if you turn it to your advantage rather than wallow in negativity, that I’m the only one who does any work around here! feeling can serve as a nudge to help you consider what things look like from someone else’s perspective. “You’re the center of your own world,” Epley said, “but not of everyone else’s.”