American kids are #1 at thinking they are #1

An excerpt from Bill Maher’s new book, What This Comedian Said Will Shock You shared by The Free Press caught my attention recently. In it, Maher references a study of developed countries that he says found “U.S. students were dead last in math skills but number one in confidence in math skills, even though they suck at it. Yes, we’re number one in thinking we’re number one.”

I wasn’t familiar with this study, so I did a little digging and tracked down a paper published in September 2023 that investigated the phenomena of “overclaiming” — individuals claiming to have knowledge about an issue or topic that is impossible to have.

Using data from the OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) questionnaire, researchers found that when teenagers (15 year olds) in the nine Anglophone countries they studied were asked about their familiarity with mathematical constructs, students in the U.S., followed closely by Canada, were the most likely to “overclaim,” or state they understood/had knowledge of and expertise in three math concepts that don’t actually exist. Boys were also much more likely to overclaim than girls across all countries studied.

Those most likely to overclaim were also found to “exhibit high levels of overconfidence and believe they work hard, persevere at tasks, and are popular amongst their peers,” the study notes.

The 30-minute questionnaire gathers information on young people’s “knowledge, attitudes and experience of subjects they study at school,” reports the researchers. Students were asked: “Thinking about mathematical concepts, how familiar are you with the following terms?” Students then ranked their knowledge of 16 math concepts (see below) on a five-point scale — from “never heard of it” to “know it well, understand the concept.”

  1. Exponential function
  2. Divisor
  3. Quadratic function
  4. Proper number
  5. Linear equation
  6. Vectors
  7. Complex number
  8. Rational number
  9. Radicals
  10. Subjunctive scaling
  11. Polygon
  12. Declarative function
  13. Congruent figure
  14. Cosine
  15. Arithmetic mean
  16. Probability

Numbers 4, 10, and 12 are the fake math concepts. The researchers noted they found “no evidence that the overclaiming index is related to young people’s test motivation” and that the overclaiming scale “is not associated with self-reported truancy from school.”

Together, this provides us with reassurance that the correlations observed…are unlikely to be driven by social desirability bias or other forms of careless/extreme response.

The United States and Canada both had significantly higher overclaiming scores than the other countries studied, whose overclaiming scores ranked them after the two North American countries as follows: England, Australia, New Zealand, Wales, Northern Ireland, Ireland, and Scotland.

The PISA results used for this study, from 2012, show that the United States’ average math score was the lowest out of the countries investigated for overclaiming.

Most recent results from the 2022 PISA math test also have the above countries scoring higher than the United States.

“America is a country whose children score low in math and science but off the charts in self-esteem,” Maher writes. “Kids now have too much self-esteem, and it’s turning them into angry, screaming grievance collectors. … It’s no wonder that by the time they get to college, just having to listen to an opinion they don’t agree with is considered an act of ‘violence.'”