Are you a good golfer? An above-average cook? Do you consider yourself an expert photographer? Are you an intermediate speaker of Spanish? How well do you play tennis? Are you confident you can do your own tax return?
Consumers regularly have to assess their own skills to make purchasing decisions. It's a huge part of the buying process.
Unfortunately, we are really lousy at it, research shows.
"People have a bad idea of how they compare to other people," said Katherine Burson, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Michigan, who has studied consumers' self-assessments of skill. "They can end up in a real mess, buying the wrong products for the wrong reasons."
Assessing skill often determines how sophisticated a product you buy. Someone who fancies himself an expert photographer will likely buy a more sophisticated and feature-rich camera. The more skilled you think you are the more money you are likely to spend because high-skill products usually cost more.
The problem is, we're poor judges of our skill level relative to other consumers and relative to the array of product offerings.
We're continually making bad purchasing decisions, buying items that are beyond our skill level or well below it, according to research by Burson and other academics. So we buy low-skill products and become bored, or we buy high-skill products and become frustrated or in some cases even injure ourselves.
Here are tips to better assess your skills and buy more appropriate products:
-- Compare yourself to others, not the task's difficulty.
Burson's experimental research showed, not surprisingly, that people putting a golf ball on an indoor green from 3 feet away made lots of putts. They thought they were good golfers and were willing to pay more for higher-quality golf balls to match their perceived high-skill level. Meanwhile, those who putted from 10 feet--and missed many putts--had a much lower assessment of their skill and opted for lower-priced balls.
In other experiments Burson was able to manipulate people's opinions of their skiing and camera expertise by giving them either easy or difficult written tests.
"If a consumer can collect one piece of information that would really improve his chances of buying the right product, it would be answering the question, `How does the average person do at this task?' " Burson said.-- Seek objective help.
A benevolent sales representative can help because he or she sees the wide variety of customer skill levels coming through the store. You might have the most luck talking with a store owner who is concerned about matching you with an appropriate product so you will be satisfied and return as a customer. A short-timer salesperson might go for the quick big sale of a mismatched product without regard for your repeat business. You also can seek help from highly skilled friends and relatives who could steer you toward an appropriate product level.
-- Become familiar with the range of products and prices.
Many product lines have an array of choices aimed at skill levels, from beginner to expert. But not all stores carry the full array. A person who views himself as an average photographer will probably buy a midprice camera. But a midprice camera at a specialty store might cost $600, while the midprice camera at Wal-Mart might be very different and cost $150. "Because people make inferences from what they see in front of them, they can be led astray," Burson said.
-- Don't confuse confidence with skill.
The "Lake Wobegon" effect refers to Garrison Keillor's fictional town where "all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average." Of course, that can't be true, but many overconfident people have a skewed view of their capabilities. Similarly, meek, underconfident people might have inaccurately low perceptions of their abilities.
Research suggests that men tend to be overconfident and think they are above average more often than women.-- Examine your motivation.
Be honest about whether you are buying a full-featured--and more expensive--product based on your skill or for the misguided reason of keeping up with the Joneses. Also, resist buying an upscale product so you have room to grow into it. "Remember that the very first assessment you made about yourself is probably not right and you add onto it the notion that you will improve," Burson said. "You could end up really far away from the product you're supposed to get."
-- Watch retailers.
Ever wonder why many indoor putting greens in golf shops are small with flat surfaces? A cynic might say it's because you'll be good at making putts on the practice green, which will encourage you to buy a more expensive putter and balls. Similarly, a home-improvement store might want to convince you to buy its supplies and attempt difficult projects no matter your skill level.
"Even if they don't intend to, marketers tend to inflate people's perceptions of their abilities," Burson said. "There's the implicit belief that you should make customers feel good about themselves."
The result might be dissatisfaction with your purchase. Other times a marketer will want to trample your confidence. For example, a tax-preparation service is likely best served by convincing you that doing your own taxes is too difficult.
-- If uncertain, buy used.
If you remain confused about your skill level consider buying an item secondhand. That helps in two ways. First, it limits the money you have to spend while discovering your true skill level. Second, if the item is inappropriate you can quickly resell it for little or no loss. For example, if you buy a 2-year-old tennis racket and own it for a month, you can sell it for about the same price as you paid.
A store's liberal return policy also could encourage you to buy and return items until you find an appropriate one.
Gregory Karp is a personal finance writer for The Morning Call, a Tribune Co. newspaper in Allentown, Pa. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times