How we rate our own abilities is strongly based on other people's performance, according to a recent study.

Ratings of our own abilities are strongly influenced by the performance of others, according to a study published in Neuron. Interacting with high performers makes us feel more capable in cooperative team settings, but less competent in competitive situations.

"We found that although people estimated their abilities on the basis of their own performance in a rational manner, their estimates of themselves were partly merged with the performance of others," says first author Marco Wittmann, of the University of Oxford. "The findings potentially have implications for social interactions in the workplace as well as clinical disorders such as depression."

Estimating the abilities of ourselves and others is key for survival, guiding decisions about which social groups to join and whether to attack or retreat. In daily life, we constantly judge ourselves and others about everything from intellectual merit to athletic prowess. A wealth of psychology research has shown that comparisons with other people can be used as an effective means for self-evaluation, and conversely, people base judgments of other people on knowledge of their own traits.

In cooperative situations, the subjects evaluated themselves more positively when the other players performed well and more negatively when the other players performed poorly. But in the competitive context, the subjects evaluated themselves more negatively when interacting with high performers compared to low performers. "Our behavioural findings match well with what people experience in their workplace," Wittmann says. "They might feel better or worse about themselves depending on how well the group they are working with is doing, or they might feel worse about themselves when facing a strong competitor."

According to Wittmann, the next step is to test how self-other-mergence and brain area 9 activity are affected in clinical populations. "We are wondering whether the brain mechanisms underlying self and other evaluation might be altered in clinical syndromes such as depression, where people can feel helpless when facing their daily tasks," he says. "It seems intuitive that people with depression might judge how well they are doing differently compared to non-depressed people. I think it would be worth following this up."