An interesting topic. I will collect a few views and examine the results.
Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.—Confucius
Successful negotiation of everyday life would seem to require people to possess insight about deficiencies in their intellectual and social skills. However, people tend to be blissfully unaware of their incompetence.
This lack of awareness arises because poor performers are doubly cursed: Their lack of skill deprives them not only of the ability to produce correct responses, but also of the expertise necessary to surmise that they are not producing them. People base their perceptions of performance, in part, on their preconceived notions about their skills.
Because these notions often do not correlate with objective performance, they can lead people to make judgments about their performance that have little to do with actual accomplishment.”
Confucius’ observation rings just as true today as it did 26 centuries ago. To achieve and maintain an adequate measure of the good life, people must have some insight
into their limitations. To ace an exam, a college student must know when he needs to crack open his notebook one more time. To provide adequate care, a physician must
know where her expertise ends and the need to call in a specialist begins.
Recent research we have conducted, however, suggests that people are not adept at spotting the limits of their knowledge and expertise.
Indeed, in many social and intellectual domains, people are unaware of their incompetence, innocent of their ignorance. Where they lack skill or knowledge, they greatly overestimate their expertise and talent, thinking they are doing just fine when, in fact, they are doing quite poorly.
This research, combined with previous work (for a review, see Falchikov & Boud, 1989), calls into question the ability people have to form accurate views of their skills and expertise. But more than that, it calls into question whether people are, or ever can be, in a position to form accurate self-impressions.
If incompetent individuals do not have the skills necessary to achieve insight into their plight, how can they be expected to achieve accurate self-views? How can anybody be sure that he or she is not in the same position?
This research also potentially explains, in part, a mystery that people regularly confront in their everyday dealings. Everyone knows people who just seem to accept their deficiencies, failing to work to improve upon them. Perhaps these individuals “accept” their deficiencies because they are unaware that they have them. As Alfred North Whitehead once observed, it is not ignorance, but ignorance of ignorance,
that is the death of knowledge.
Our work suggests many different avenues of follow-up, but one particularly important future avenue would focus on how, or whether,
people can become aware of their intellectual and social deficiencies.
What are the domains in which people naturally intuit their deficits, and how do those domains differ from the ones we have studied? Are there rules of thumb that people can follow to ferret out their areas of incompetence? Can people ever be expected to uncover their pockets of incompetence on their own, or is outside intervention always necessary? Removing barriers to self improvement may rest on answers to these questions.
Ignorant and Incompetent People Aren’t Aware of Their Ignorance and Incompetence
Ignorance comes in many forms, and sometimes it’s hard to imagine that the ignorant person is serious. I’ve found myself on numerous occasions reading various comments on social media and saying to myself, “This guy has got to be trolling.” But it turns out that many times the ignorant commenters aren’t trolling; they’re just really dumb. But ignorance isn’t exclusive to your casual social media commenter; the experts are guilty of it too. We have a myriad of seemingly scientific writers engaging in cargo cult science – it might look and feel like science, but it’s not science. These types are unwilling to doubt their own theories, which is counter to the essence of a true scientist.
One would think that ignorant and incompetent people would know that they are ignorant and incompetent, and that they would therefore remain humble and willing to learn from others. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect
What they found through their research was that for any given task, an incompetent person will tend to:
- overestimate their own level of skill,
- fail to recognize genuine skill in others, and
- fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy
Dunning and Kruger’s research has led to the dubbing of The Dunning-Kruger Effect, which is readily apparent in any field, especially fitness.
Are We All in Various Stages of Denial?
Anosognosia is a condition whereby a disabled person suffering from a brain injury is unaware of or denies the existence of his or her own disability. These individuals have a serious self-awareness deficiency, which can be neurological or physchological in nature, and it occurs even in the presence of obvious impairments such as blindness or paralysis. What we now realize is that in a way, all humans suffer from anosognosia, since we’re not always equipped with the knowledge needed to identify ignorance/incompetence.
To quote David Dunning, “If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent. The skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.” Though their research is fairly modern, the phenomenon relating to self-confidence and competency has been discussed for quite some time. Confucius stated that, “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” Charles Darwin noted that, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” And William Shakespeare wrote, “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wiseman knows himself to be a fool.”
As you can see, fools don’t know they’re fools. Coming from someone who sifts through up to a hundred journals per month and spends considerable time reading and conducting research, I can tell you that quite often there’s more to the story than meets the eye. To answer a particular question, we often need to conduct multiple studies and bring in expert researchers from different fields. The fool isn’t aware of this; he thinks his intuition is sufficient. This is why we have a multitude of individuals presenting themselves as experts on topics that they’re actually clueless about, and this includes exercises they’ve never performed, methods they’ve never experimented with, tools and instruments they’ve never used, and concepts they’ve never researched or reviewed.
Next time you’re on social media perusing comments, see if you can spot the overly-confident fools versus the true experts. It’s not always easy to spot, since the fool is typically guided by a more lax code of conduct. The fool will often go for the jugular and use logical fallacies to increase his chances of appearing right. Finally, always make sure to keep yourself in check and question your own beliefs – lest the fool be you!
Unskilled and Unaware of It
When asked, most individuals will describe themselves as better-than-average in areas such as leadership, social skills, written expression, or just about any flavor of savvy where the individual has an interest. This tendency of the average person to believe he or she is better-than-average is known as the “above-average effect,” and it flies in the face of logic… by definition, descriptive statistics says that it is impossible absurdly improbable for a majority of people to be above average. It follows, therefore, that a large number of the self-described “above average” individuals are in fact below average in those areas, and they are simply unaware of their incompetence.It seems that the reason for this phenomenon is obvious: The more incompetent someone is in a particular area, the less qualified that person is to assess anyone’s skill in that space, including their own. When one fails to recognize that he or she has performed poorly, the individual is left assuming that they have performed well. As a result, the incompetent will tend to grossly overestimate their skills and abilities. A few years ago, two men from the Department of Psychology at Cornell University made an effort to determine just how profoundly one misoverestimates one’s own skills in relation to one’s actual abilities. They made four predictions, and executed four studies.
Justin Kruger and David Dunning made the following predictions before beginning their investigation:
- Incompetent individuals, compared with their more competent peers, will dramatically overestimate their ability and performance relative to objective criteria.
- Incompetent individuals will suffer from deficient metacognitive skills, in that they will be less able than their more competent peers to recognize competence when they see it–be it their own or anyone else’s.
- Incompetent individuals will be less able than their more competent peers to gain insight into their true level of performance by means of social comparison information. In particular, because of their difficulty recognizing competence in others, incompetent individuals will be unable to use information about the choices and performances of others to form more accurate impressions of their own ability.
- The incompetent can gain insight about their shortcomings, but this comes (paradoxically) by making them more competent, thus providing them the metacognitive skills necessary to be able to realize that they have performed poorly.
In each study, the men tested participants in areas where knowledge, wisdom, or savvy was crucial, specifically humor, logical reasoning, and English grammar. The participants were then asked to guess at the accuracy of their own performance so their self-assessment could be compared to the actual results.
In short, the study showed that the researchers’ predictions were spot-on. Participants scoring in the bottom quartile grossly overestimated their test performance and ability, and analysis confirmed that this miscalibration was due to deficits in metacognitive skill (the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error). Those who were incompetent tended to suspect that their abilities were unequal to the tasks, but the suspicion often failed to anticipate the magnitude of their shortcomings. As predicted, training the participants on the subjects in question increased their metacognitive competence, and allowed them to better recognize the limitations of their abilities.
Also interestingly, the top performers tended to underestimate their own performance compared to their peers. The researchers found that those participants fell prey to the false-consensus effect, a phenomenon where one assumes that one’s peers are performing at least as well as oneself when given no evidence to the contrary.
Were the researchers’ conclusions accurate? If asked, they would probably answer in a confident affirmative. However their execution forces one to ponder whether these chaps may have overestimated their own competence. In the first study, participants were asked to rate the “funniness” of a series of jokes, and the correctness of their responses was used to measure their metacognitive competence in humor. The test’s answer key, which was used to grade the participants’ responses, was provided by a panel of expert comedians. The comedians were asked to rate the jokes on a scale from 1 to 11, and one comedian’s responses were discarded because their answers did not correlate well with the others. One hopes the irony of these decisions was not lost on the researchers.
The British philosopher Bertrand Russell once wrote that “the trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” This is true whether one interprets “stupid” as foolish (short on smarts) or as ignorant (short on information). Deliberately or otherwise, his sentiment echoes that of Charles Darwin, who over one hundred years ago pointed out that “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”
The Internet is a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet of such misplaced confidence. Online, individuals often speak with confident authority on a subject, yet their conclusions are flawed. It is likely that such individuals are completely ignorant of their ignorance. Cough.
Certainly the “Unskilled and Unaware of It” research backs up the idea that when a person cannot recognize his or her own poor performance, their self-assessment does not include that negative information. This results in an artificially inflated view of one’s own skills, often tempered by ego. The same effect will cause the incompetent to congratulate one another as they fail to detect one another’s inadequacies. One possible corollary to these conclusions is Scott Adams’ Dilbert Principle, which tells us that the most ineffective workers are systematically promoted into management. Perhaps those doing the promoting are incompetent, and therefore fail to recognize the incompetence in those they reward.
Obviously not all confidence is misplaced; sometimes it is the result of strong skills and accurate self-assessment. But all too often, confidence is an artifact of ignorance. As is the case with many human flaws, perhaps the best remedy is to never stop learning, to seek out and absorb constructive criticism, and to always be prepared to admit that you may be wrong about something.
Of course, the researchers may have drawn the wrong conclusions… perhaps most people really are above average.
― Atwood H. Townsend
ten percent of the people think they think;
and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think.”
― Thomas A. Edison