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Unskilled and Unaware of It

Article #146 • Written by Alan Bellows

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:

  1. Incompetent individuals, compared with their more competent peers, will dramatically overestimate their ability and performance relative to objective criteria.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Article written by Alan Bellows, published on 25 March 2006. Alan is the founder/designer/head writer/managing editor of Damn Interesting.

Article design by Alan Bellows.
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102 Comments
Oax
Posted 25 March 2006 at 07:50 pm

In some ways I believe I am above average, but it's not pride.

It's an indictment of average.


MaddMan
Posted 25 March 2006 at 08:34 pm

Just to verify my sanity, it isn't really possible for most people to be above average, is it?


Alan Bellows
Posted 25 March 2006 at 09:17 pm

MaddMan said: "Just to verify my sanity, it isn't really possible for most people to be above average, is it?"

Correct... I was trying to be funny. Perhaps I lack humor competence.


Prince
Posted 25 March 2006 at 09:31 pm

Ive been told I am intelligent on many occasions by many people, and I just assume they are all correct, but what if im actually a dumbass?


Sean
Posted 25 March 2006 at 09:34 pm

This is something I've run into a lot, and it took me a while to figure out. A good example of it (in my life, at least) is when I've been in a group where someone asks for volunteers for particular jobs that need to be done. In these cases I always try to assess how well I think I could do that job (as well as my desire to do it) and then raise my hand or stay quiet depending on my assessment. Most of the time when a job comes up that I don't think I could do well, someone confidently raises his or her hand and says "I'll do it." At first I admire their confidence and ability to perform this task which I decided I would be poor at. However, almost without fail, when this person returns with their results it is significantly worse than what I could have accomplished. I always asked myself "How could they be so confident yet produce such crap?" After going through this many times I finally came to the conclusion that was reached in this study.

It can be a very powerful and liberating thing to realize that a large percentage of the people who act superior to you are actually inferior... and not bright enough to realize it.


spqwer
Posted 25 March 2006 at 09:52 pm

Of course it's possible for a majority of people to be above average. What's impossible is for the majority of people to be above the median. Consider the list of numbers
1 100 101 102 103 -- four out of five of them are above average. (I'm not usually this pedantic... but seeing as this article is about people who aren't as smart as they think they are, this is very ironic).


Alan Bellows
Posted 25 March 2006 at 09:54 pm

spqwer said: " (I'm not usually this pedantic… but seeing as this article is about people who aren't as smart as they think they are, this is very ironic)."

Damn you! I am shaking my fist right now.

Actually that was the main motivation behind my subtle self-deprecating wisecracks... I am not as versed in this subject as I would like to be, yet here I am writing about it.


OpusX
Posted 25 March 2006 at 09:54 pm

Why is it not possible to have most people above average it really depends upon how stupid the bad ones are and their ability to pull the average down. A simple example would be to take ten numbers, nine of them are 9 and one of them is 1. The average would be ((9*9) + (1*1))/10 = 8.2 In this case the bulk of the numbers are above the average.


Matthew Strebe
Posted 25 March 2006 at 10:33 pm

It’s certainly possible to have most people above average in a small group—in fact, it happens any time I and my friends are together. But it becomes increasingly unlikely for each new member you add to the sampled population. Once the size of your sample population is more than a few thousand individuals (and there are no unknown attractors such as that your population is the student body of a university or participants at an IEEE conference), the odds of the population being anything other than average are vanishingly low.
You might know this effect as the law of averages. Then again, you might not.


xircso
Posted 25 March 2006 at 10:51 pm

i agree that its impossible for the majority to be above the average, or median depending on how correct you want to be. but doesnt the same theory say that its impossible for the majority to be below the average? i'm sure this is fairly obvious to those who read this (not quite an IEEE conference here, but close) and i'm far from an expert in this but i just wanted to note that it would work both ways.

for the record, im usually one of those people who thinks i'm doing sub-par work, then when i raise my head i see that i have exceeded most of my peers.


Secret Ninja
Posted 25 March 2006 at 10:58 pm

I hate you all


fatmatt33190
Posted 25 March 2006 at 11:03 pm

this makes me depressed


buckyboy314
Posted 25 March 2006 at 11:36 pm

Well, most intelligence tests are normalized, and anything where more than half of the people are above average would have to have a skew left. That means few incredibly intelligent people and some profound idiots. In my experience, there is more likely a right skew. On the other hand, I believe that most people are above average in some discipline or other or some way of thinking. Perhaps this is the result of hearing "everyone is special" too many times in childhood, but I think this is the same idea. When you have one powerful way of thinking, every problem looks like that is the best approach, much as if you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.


paintist
Posted 25 March 2006 at 11:41 pm

All mathematics aside... isn't the "flawed" mentality here, or maybe I should say "deficient metacognitive skills", a positive outlook? Psychologists routinely suggest that people adopt either a realistic outlook or an unrealistic optimistic outlook. It seems to me that most people, or most people in those tests, have adopted an unrealistic optimistic outlook on life. And isn't an unrealistic optimistic outlook better than say... a realistic/unrealistic pessimistic outlook? Basically, isn't it better to think of oneself as better than average rather than average or below average? Despite the so-called metacognitives deficiencies that people "suffer from" or "fall prey to", isn't it still the "best" way to go about things?


stahlsau
Posted 26 March 2006 at 12:18 am

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."

Damn, this must've been a very wise man. Really. It's impressive how often this is correct.


Steve
Posted 26 March 2006 at 12:19 am

I refuse to compare myself to the other odds.


teddlesruss
Posted 26 March 2006 at 12:59 am

Screwed if you do and screwed if you don't.

One way for most people to be above average is if the people below average are REALLY abysmal. Why does that make me so depressed?


Eric Leeson
Posted 26 March 2006 at 01:12 am

I appreciate those who are dumb and recognize it. It’s the self-proclaimed geniuses that don’t know what “self-proclaimed” means that truly irritate me.


Anonymous User
Posted 26 March 2006 at 03:33 am

If everyone was above the average, who is on the average and below the average? And what is the average? A true genius never claims s/he is a genius. Basically saying "I am above average." is very stupid although it might help you not to lose your face.


Cory
Posted 26 March 2006 at 03:51 am

In response to the whole "above average" concept, the use of this phrase is a fairly broad stroke in this summary. It appears that the study, however, there are relatively precise measurements used. Here's an interesting clip: "Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although their test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd."

Ok, so this is more precise than the summary. But reading down into the methods section of the paper, we find that there were as few as 45 PARTICIPANTS, for one of the tests, all of whom were psychology undergraduate students from Cornell. These results can really only be generalized to that group. The sample is not sufficient to make generalizations about the entire population. This study was clearly focused on the testing methods much more than the results of the surveys. Perhaps someone else will take this study further with a better sample of the population.


Marius
Posted 26 March 2006 at 04:59 am

Not wanting to jump on the 'grammar-nazi' bandwagon here, but given the nature of today's entry I must ask, did you use the non-word 'misoverestimates' intentionally as a point of irony?

And how many of you out there have never encountered your own Cliff Claven, who believes he/she holds the sum total of all human knowledge, yet is dumber than a bag of hammers? I will grant that the data in this study are somewhat fuzzy, but overall I have to agree with the Harvey Danger song, 'Been around the world and found that only stupid people are breeding...' (of course, I too may just be a dumbass and not know it) ;-)


another viewpoint
Posted 26 March 2006 at 06:40 am

...well, I once thought I made a mistake, but I was wrong.

It is a shame that in todays environment, humor and sarcasm are NOT "core competancies" that are used to rate employees in the performance of their jobs (a 1-10 scale would not be large enough for this). Instead, competancies that might not have any bearing on your job are entered into the equation...such as diversity/inclusion.

If you're looking for incompetance and persons that think they ARE above average, look no further than the board rooms of most Fortune 500 corporations. There, you will find a group of people that sit around in a circle, sit on one another's board of directors (for which they get handsomely paid) and proliferate the same management mistakes over and over. In fact, many of these persons have no idea how to "run a business", but instead, are only managing money...and can't do that very well. Just because they get paid absurd salaries and bonuses, does not mean that they have the knowledge to run a business. This has got to be the next closest thing to legalized money laundering.

A CEO was fired from AT&T because he was reported to be "intellectual incompetent"...he received $25 million dollars for his management skills when he was walked out the door. Never mind that he was an arrogant and egotistical salesman type person.

In the end, you are what you believe you are. Remember those that think they are better than you as they climb the ladder of success. Many of them will pass you again on the way back down when their true self is redeemed. Sadly for the rest of us, they'll probably be richer, not poorer though.


another viewpoint
Posted 26 March 2006 at 06:42 am

BTW...luv the photo at the head of the story. If you haven't seen the movie "Office Space", run, don't walk, to your nearest video store. You won't a flick that better portrays the comings and goings in the corporate world, the world of consultants, and worst of all, the true feelings and attitudes of those that have to work to make a living.


TDavis
Posted 26 March 2006 at 07:51 am

I'm not sure if this has any bearing on the discussion, but I'm reminded of "Peter's Principle":
In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence.
I have found this to be depressingly accurate. I would make one addition to it: In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence....And Stays There!


Chazbro38
Posted 26 March 2006 at 08:32 am

This clearly explains the extremely high level of professional incompetence of the Presidential Administration of George W. Bush.

May God have mercy on all of our souls!


Dementia
Posted 26 March 2006 at 10:27 am

I believe this got an Ig Nobel, along with another study that shows that if a paper is highlighted incompetently, other people have a harder time understanding it... thus, stupid people make the rest of us stupider. Huzzah.


Rob
Posted 26 March 2006 at 11:56 am

Great post! I have just referenced it in a piece on my blog on professional service firm strategy, The Adventure of Strategy (www.robmillard.com.) Rob.


jbigdog
Posted 26 March 2006 at 12:02 pm

So, if I'm an incompetent moron and I know it, does that mean I'm really not an incompetent moron? Wait a minute, that would mean I'm wrong about my level of incompetence, which would mean I really am incompetent.

I'm so confused!!! I must be an incompetent moron.


surfjay
Posted 26 March 2006 at 12:55 pm

Respecting the mathematical arguments intelligently pursued here, I want to point out something also worthy of thought. Some great work has been done about our self-assessments and what they mean to our performance by a Stanford psychologist named Carol Dweck. An interview with the key points of her simple, but brilliant conclusions can be heard at: http://www.itconversations.com/shows/detail1011.html. For some (and this includes me) her concepts can help enhance performance. Check it out.


Alan Bellows
Posted 26 March 2006 at 01:30 pm

surfjay said: "An interview with the key points of her simple, but brilliant conclusions can be heard at: http://www.itconversations.com/shows/detail1011.html. For some (and this includes me) her concepts can help enhance performance. Check it out."

Awesome link... thanks jay. This really underscores the researchers' point that increasing one's knowledge (and therefore one's metacognitive skill) not only increases one's competence, but also one's ability to assess oneself.

By learning that mindset plays a large role in self-assessment, one can realize that their potential is much greater than they realize.


Mike
Posted 26 March 2006 at 03:00 pm

Sure it's possible for most of us to be above average. Consider for a moment how many legs you have. I have two (and I counted 'em twice). Most people I know do, too. However, the average number of legs on human beings will be something less than two :)


dmwit
Posted 26 March 2006 at 03:16 pm

I'm skeptical about some of the statistics here. If you glance at the graphs, the estimated abilities aren't really that well correlated with the actual abilities. Everybody rates themselves around the 65-70th percentile. So, it isn't that competancy comes with the ability to recognize one's own skill; instead, everybody is equally good (well, equally bad) at estimating. Since everyone estimates they are in the 70th percentile, those nearer the 70th percentile are perceived as doing a better job of estimating their own ability!


JMackley
Posted 26 March 2006 at 03:57 pm

Almost everyone is better than average at some level of knowledge, experience, or skill - or at least was at some time. Naturally, we all tend to define ourselves by our best qualities and then extend that definition into areas where there is no experience, talent, or skill. Overall, it's better to be overconfident because at least one is gaining experience. It's those that lose confidence that fail to progress.


coobah
Posted 26 March 2006 at 04:10 pm

"by definition, descriptive statistics says that it is impossible for a majority of people to be above average"

This is false. As an example take 3 individuals - 2 individuals with a score of 10 and 1 with a score of 1. Average score is 7, and 2 out of 3 (majority) score above average.


Furnace
Posted 26 March 2006 at 04:30 pm

I think the best way to measure someone's intelligence is to see how they value intelligence. A question I particularly like is, "If you could get $1000 for every point you drop your IQ, how much (if any) would you cash in?" Less intelligent people tend to disregard how important intelligence is and cash in fifty grand at the drop of a hat.


Alan Bellows
Posted 26 March 2006 at 04:32 pm

coobah said: "This is false. As an example take 3 individuals - 2 individuals with a score of 10 and 1 with a score of 1. Average score is 7, and 2 out of 3 (majority) score above average."

True... that was poor word choice on my part. Due to your feedback and that of others, I have revised that phrasing to "absurdly improbable." Remember that we're talking about "most individuals," which is a much larger set than three people... so although it is possible for most people (in a very large random set) to be above average, it is highly unlikely, no? It is my understanding that sets of random people tend to follow a bell curve when measured on skills such as those described in the research, where about half of the set is at or below average, and the rest above average.

Thanks for helping us keep our facts straight...


Bucky
Posted 26 March 2006 at 04:49 pm

Alan Bellows said: "It is my understanding that sets of random people tend to follow a bell curve when measured on skills such as those described in the research, where about half of the set is at or below average, and the rest above average."

As a student who is taking Statistics currently and will take the AP Statistics test in May, I will confirm that you are correct. When you're describing an entire population, it's safe to assume that any test statistic is going to be very (very very very) closely approximated by a normal curve about the mean. Indeed, even a seemingly small sample of just 100 people or so provides a damn good approximation.

So, either wording would be correct I guess. I actually believe your original statement was more correct than what it was changed to.


maux
Posted 26 March 2006 at 05:22 pm

I am annoyed with you, so I shall keep reading you. Is that stupid?


Cynthia Wood
Posted 26 March 2006 at 06:39 pm

This looks to me like an illustration of the usual learning progression 1. unaware/incompetent 2. aware/incompetent 3. aware/competent 4. unaware/competent. Or to put it another way, people start off at most things being incompetent, and having no idea just how incompetent they are. Then as they start to learn, one of the first things that happens is that they become aware of how little they really know. Next they actually increase their competence. Then finally, if they pursue their competence long enough they become able to perform without even being aware of how good they really are. The people who so badly overestimate themselves would be the unaware/incompetent. On the other end, the really good people who underestimate themselves would be the unaware/competent.

Hmm. As a general rule, I'm consider myself on the highly competent end - but when faced with any particular given task I suffer great doubts about how well I will do it. So which time am I fooling myself, I wonder?


jmcgilberry
Posted 26 March 2006 at 07:24 pm

I find it highly amusing that anyone who has posted a comment here and stated how competent they think they are, has told us they believe they are above average. Priceless!

(just for the record, I'm above average...)


APA7HY
Posted 26 March 2006 at 07:41 pm

I'm constantly second-guessing myself about grammar and spelling. Well, not just those things, but just about everything I do. I stop and think about what I'm doing and I begin to doubt myself. I believe (and this is ironic that I'm about to say this, considering the content of the article) that I have a fairly strong sense of logic, and perhaps that's why I constantly doubt myself. ::shrug:: Or maybe I'm just an idiot. Haha.

In any case, great article.


another viewpoint
Posted 27 March 2006 at 06:25 am

I know you think you understood what I said...but I'm not so sure that what you heard is not what I meant!


Xcalibur
Posted 27 March 2006 at 08:24 am

I studied this phenomena in a Social Psychology class last year, and came across another interesting tidbit. According to our prof (and I don't know whom he was citing on this, so I'm sorry I cannot provide a link), in individualistic societies, such as the Western world, most people tend to believe they are above average. However, in the more group-oriented societies of Asia and throughout the underdeveloped world, most people tend to believe they are slightly less than average when compared to the group. He said this might be a byproduct of the society's goals-- the Western societies want individuals to feel empowered, and the group-oriented society's want conformity to occur out of an individual's feelings of incompetence.

Once again I am very sorry I don't have a link, a name, or any other source for this information other than my batty old Social Psych professor. Thus demonstrating MY incompetence...


davida
Posted 27 March 2006 at 08:49 am

I've always lived by two things.....

(1) the moment you think you are good at something is the moment you are not. It closes the mind and makes you lazy.

(2) surround yourself with people that are humble but smart and also willing to tell you that you are wrong.

I think the point of the article is just that...anyone who stops learning is an idiot, regardless of the math.


Armani
Posted 27 March 2006 at 10:05 am

Xcalibur said: "I studied this phenomena in a Social Psychology class last year, and came across another interesting tidbit. According to our prof (and I don't know whom he was citing on this, so I'm sorry I cannot provide a link), in individualistic societies, such as the Western world, most people tend to believe they are above average. However, in the more group-oriented societies of Asia and throughout the underdeveloped world, most people tend to believe they are slightly less than average when compared to the group. He said this might be a byproduct of the society's goals– the Western societies want individuals to feel empowered, and the group-oriented society's want conformity to occur out of an individual's feelings of incompetence.


Once again I am very sorry I don't have a link, a name, or any other source for this information other than my batty old Social Psych professor. Thus demonstrating MY incompetence…"

Yea stupid Americans think they are so smart with their banjos. If you take Chinese people for example, they are taught to be moddest even though they are good at certain things. In the Western world, people are thought they everyone is different and is good at something.


pathgeek
Posted 27 March 2006 at 01:38 pm

I'd be most interested if they would take their findings and apply them to elected officials.
Although, one could presume that there would be no unforeseen findings


Merk
Posted 27 March 2006 at 02:44 pm

"One hopes the irony of these decisions was not lost on the researchers."

One hopes the irony of "a panel of expert comedians" and "a scale from 1 to 11" (pace Spinal Tap) were not lost on the writer of the article...

As for the Russell quote, Yeats might have beat him to it: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst /
Are full of passionate intensity" (from Yeats' The Second Coming). (That sentiment encapsulates American politics today.)

And as for people judging themselves to be above-average, why begrudge people a little self-esteem? We'd probably have a lot more suicide if people didn't think they were better than others. I know I for one overestimate my dancing skills, but if I didn't, would I ever dance? (And to anyone about to tell me that's a contradiction, I have one word: alcohol.)


JMJanzen
Posted 27 March 2006 at 02:53 pm

It's funny how this turned into a debate about semantics. Anyway, yes, the article is very interesting - well written too, I might add - definitely storing that away as a mental note for future trials, at the hands of pompous airbags. ; )


Matt Apple
Posted 27 March 2006 at 03:16 pm

A few quick points:

1. It is possible for the majority of a group to be above average. For example in the number set (4,4,1) the average is 3 and the majority of the numbers in the set are higher than that. What is impossible is for EVERYONE to be above average.

2. I can't believe no one pointed this out but how exactly can humor be quantified? At the most all you could do is track the degree to which someone's sense of humor matched someone elses; in this case a panel of "expert comedians" (whatever the hell that is!).

3. This article reminds me of the
Four Stages of Competence where the "unskilled and unaware" correspond to the "unconscious incompetent".

4. Also I take issue with this passage:

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.

I believe the competent are aware of the general incompetence of the populace. If they were not wouldn't this belie their supposed competence? I think the reason the competent underestimate themselves in comparison with others is twofold.

Firstly the competent are probably less likely to go around measuring themselves against others and more likely to measure themselves against either their own past performance or an ideal level they aspire toward.

Secondly as competence increases so does a kind of "intellectual humility", or put another way, the more you know the more you realize how much you don't know. As a visual example suppose you had two men of equal height standing at different distances from an obelisk. The man further away thinks the obelisk looks 20 times his height. The man standing closer thinks the obelisk looks 50 times his height. This doesn't mean that the closer man perceives himself to be shorter but rather that he perceives the obelisk to be taller. I have noticed in my own chosen field of study, Computer Science, that the more I learn the more I am awed by how much there is yet to learn (it can actually be a little discouraging).


myname
Posted 27 March 2006 at 10:46 pm

MaddMan said: "Just to verify my sanity, it isn't really possible for most people to be above average, is it?"

Correct, an average is relative to overall performance. If the preformance is high all around the the average is raised.


rhea_sun
Posted 28 March 2006 at 12:25 pm

The more you learn, the less you know.


xstevex1
Posted 29 March 2006 at 06:45 am

This all makes me wonder: Incompetent according to whom?

Above average by whose standards?

How do we know that the measuring stick to determine these things wasnt developed by some blithering idiot?
Perhaps those people we are calling, "Unskilled and unaware of it" are the true geniuses of their fields, and we are just jealous idiots with our own distorted self images.
Consider the many idiots of history whose mental muscle turned out to be far beyond the comprehension of "average" people.


Cynthia Wood
Posted 29 March 2006 at 11:17 am

Sometimes incompetence is a matter of opinion - sometimes it's a little more solid than that. If my chemistry professor writes a paper that no one understands, he may be an incompetent chemist, an incompetent writer, or a genius. On the other hand, if all of his students fail to understand basic chemistry by the end of the course, it's a sure bet that it's not because he's a genius teacher.

Also, it wouldn't surprise me at all if the average competence of a commenter here was somewhat higher than the average competence of the country at large. To find Damn Interesting worth reading and commenting on would seem to indicate a basic level of curiousity and willingness to learn.

That said - nobody is competent at everything.


The_Smurf_Strangler
Posted 30 March 2006 at 08:26 am

The entire premise of THE OFFICE is pretty much based on this idea. I love that show. =)


rp2
Posted 30 March 2006 at 12:53 pm

i r teh L33t and u r teh n00B!!!


NickAster
Posted 02 April 2006 at 02:37 pm

Is "misoverestimates" a word?


Anonymous User
Posted 02 April 2006 at 03:18 pm

NickAster said: "Is "misoverestimates" a word?"

no- i think that's a joke referencing george w's famous use of the non-word "misunderestimates" .


Michael Burns
Posted 14 April 2006 at 01:46 am

Whatever imprecision might exist in the cited research, this brings some important things to the forefront. Always remember that there are relatively few objective anchors to which the vast majority of our opinions can be tied. Beyond that, we are, like Colombus, sailing in search of something we may have misidentified, using basic information that is certain to contain important flaws, but out of which we may have derived some important true principle (the world is round) that will lead us to great discoveries.

Keep up the good work, Damned Interesting, and all of us.


Kai Middleton
Posted 17 April 2006 at 08:01 pm

George Carlin:
“Just think of how stupid the average person is, and then realize half of them are even stupider!”
http://en.thinkexist.com/quotation/just-think-of-how-stupid-the-average-person-is/348028.html


Bozup
Posted 18 April 2006 at 07:57 pm

This article and the subsequent above average comments have reminded me of a poem, or ode, or quadrant that I read in my 8th grade Lit. class (sometime around the Cretaceous Period). I can't remember much of it, but it's goes something like this:

A man who knows, but knows not that he knows, is wise, teach him.
A man who knows not, but knows not that he knows not, is dangerous, fear him.
Can anybody please tell me what I'm remembering? And if you're keeping tally, I'm above average mostly, but not always, kinda.


Spirrah
Posted 20 April 2006 at 02:30 pm

I have to go with the optimistic view someone posted. For example, take the average worker who goes to the same job every day. He/she does not acquire new skills in that job nor is he challenged. How can this person measure whether or not he is competent in leadership, social skills, and written expression? All the person can do is estimate or more realistically guess. Until a study is done that takes a person's opinion of himself in the aforementioned areas and then subject him to trials that test those areas and then his opinion taken again will the study be accurate.

"descriptive statistics says that it is impossible absurdly improbable for a majority of people to be above average."

In comparison to pregnancy statistics everyone who lives to be born is above average because they survived all the risks of pregnancy.

On a second note a more interesting study would be to measure the average level of common sense.


Ozzie
Posted 26 May 2006 at 10:31 am

You know this is funny.. I was just thinking about something like this the other day. I am leaving my job and training some one to take my place. In the process of handing of tasks I have had an obvious comparing of skills between myself and my replacement. For example I will talk about our Microsoft Excel skills...

At one point my replacement was asked to explain her level of Excel skills.. she repsonded probably the same way I would have, but through training I have found big differences. There were some pretty simple tasks that she had difficulty in doing which is going to be a problem all of it self. The thing that i thought was interesting is how she would respond probably the same that I would when asked to assess my own Excel skills but she obviously didn't have the training that I did.

Funny thing was since i thought she knew Excel well I asked her about a function inside Excel and she told me... "Let's ask 'so and so' he knows Excel real well". Well I asked him my question and he was lost instantly... trying to refer to his books to find an answer the question evntually faded into the past and the topic was changed. I think this was because he was totaly lost in my question. I don't think he had any idea what I was talking about. I know it wasn't my wording because if he was at the level she said he was he should have understood me perfectly fine. This goes into the fact that the ignorant can not properly measure another's skill level. She actually called him a "master"... kind of funny now that i think about it.

Very interesting and true... another well done story. This brings me back to an old quote I try to live by with everything...

"True understanding does not begin until you understand you know nothing."


smeggy
Posted 08 June 2006 at 05:31 am

I realise I’m just a tad late posting here!

Re “most think they are above average”, can we agree that “most think they are better than most”?

My extension of the Dilbert Principle: self serving managers won’t promote those who are competent in their jobs.


cin
Posted 14 June 2006 at 08:13 am

If man didn't have that old (mild or unmild) superiority complex, or just think he was special, everyone would kill themselves out of depression. Wouldn't that suck?


Montezuma
Posted 29 August 2006 at 09:57 pm

There is quite a difference between competencies and intelligence. While all of you people are busy checking your spelling and grammar so as not to look like dumb ass yourself by this definition you are missing the point. The majority of business and/or leadership positions are held by the most COMPETENT people, these people have great ambitions and display great confidence. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got an IQ of 140, your going to make a piss poor manager if you have no social graces.

I’ll give you an example, a friend of mine; engineering major is an extremely intelligent guy. I am more then willing to admit that his intelligence far exceeds my own. Furthermore, due to this fact I can honestly say he is far more capable then me. However, I don’t know if this guy is going to get through college due to the fact that he’s a very depressed person with little motivation. Considering everything he knows and can do, he does not have the confidence nor the social graces or understanding to talk to women. And so he is a 21 year old virgin.

It’s a sad reality, but what I’m trying to say is that intelligent people have their place in our world. Our professors, doctors and engineers are among the brightest society has to contribute. As for the rest of us, many of our other attributes are much more relevant to leadership positions which don’t necessarily regard the most knowledgeable people as the best if they lack those certain valuable attributes.

On a side note, the article gives the impression that all intelligent people lack confidence in themselves due to the lack of understanding of the true performance of their peers. Many times there is plenty of arrogance that comes with a high IQ. If you consider popular names in the political world such Bill Oreilly, arguably Michael Moore, and Ann Culter I’m sure you can agree that sometimes smart individuals lack the “openendedness” that is often attributed as a factor of demise to the self confidence of the individual.


xmccalla
Posted 04 October 2006 at 12:34 pm

I read this article some time ago. I keep in the back of my mind because my work (a computer consultant) pitches my abilities as "The Resident Expert". Now, I do think I'm good in many respects, but straight up admit when I'm not in my comfort zone anymore. But...

I was recently asked to self evaluate my technical skills in a spreadsheet form, 1-5 with 1 being novice and 5 being Expert. In several areas I grudgingly put 5's. But I pitched this article back to the team and the requestor, along with a short discertation. "I am often sold as the Expert in these fields. But, if you ask me, I'm just an average Joe. There are people out there that know as much or more than me in these areas, but still others look to me for expert advice. So I put a 5, but feel 3, maybe 4, depending on the audience."

Honesty gets you where? :P


Aurealeus
Posted 18 November 2006 at 07:29 pm

People study hard for a time to become above average and competent and then after they graduate
with the (self)-perception that they have achieved their full capabilities and competence......

sink back into the little they have learned.


redsalmon
Posted 29 November 2006 at 05:04 pm

yous yanks might be okay bragging about yer (in)competencies but that could be social suicide (gross incompetence) for us brits. could be survey respondents are supplying what they believe to be socially acceptable estimates and deviating towards what they assume to be a desirable 'norm' (consciously or not).
the posts above on chinese/american differences and Carol Dweck's excellent talk are great illustrations..

and who's the shrink (or the comedian) to judge anyone's sense of humour as competent? Don't the laughter nazis mean 'most folk found this joke funny'?

'tempered by ego' -- indeed, ego is a cultural variable..


Ronom
Posted 15 December 2006 at 06:42 pm

I believe its some kind of self-defence.I don't want to remember that I'm dumb, even if that becomes clear to me sometimes.


Trolley Molly
Posted 12 March 2007 at 11:04 am

"Just to verify my sanity, it isn't really possible for most people to be above average, is it?"
Of course it is! All it takes is one really below average person. Say you have individual scores of 8, 7,7,7, and 1. The average is 5. Four people are above average, one person is below.
It's not possible for most people to be above the median. That's a whole different thing.


sulkykid
Posted 12 March 2007 at 11:17 am

Trolley Molly said: ""Just to verify my sanity, it isn't really possible for most people to be above average, is it?"

Of course it is! All it takes is one really below average person. Say you have individual scores of 8, 7,7,7, and 1. The average is 5. Four people are above average, one person is below.
It's not possible for most people to be above the median. That's a whole different thing."

Actually, "average" is too general a word. Most people intend "arithmetic mean" when they say "average". There are other statistical averages: the median, the mode, and a handful of means. Some data sets, like your example, show that the arithmetic mean is not always the best way to show what the "average" is.


sulkykid
Posted 12 March 2007 at 11:19 am

I meant to include this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Average


misanthrope
Posted 13 March 2007 at 08:00 am

Trolley Molly said: ""Just to verify my sanity, it isn't really possible for most people to be above average, is it?"

Of course it is! All it takes is one really below average person. Say you have individual scores of 8, 7,7,7, and 1. The average is 5. Four people are above average, one person is below.

When that one really below average person gets elected, what does that say about the average of the electorate? ;)


roycrops
Posted 05 May 2007 at 09:45 am

Even in organizations that promote self examination, in my experience, very few people realize, none that I can recall, come to the conclusion that they are 'otna oota ightbra.' Insecure is about as far as self realization gets. The best, my most favorite combination is; dumb and arrogant. The President comes to mind.


CountriKitten
Posted 21 June 2007 at 04:22 pm

As usual, I'm terribly late with my comments, someday I'll catch up to the current articles! I just have a few things I felt I needed to say about this article...whether my comment gets read (or anybody cares) or not...

I have a red stapler, I got for Christmas, which I display prominently (prominantly? /shrug) in my cubicle, though I rarely have use for staples!
I get a real sense that some of the commentors (sp? real word? /shrug) on this very website were the inspiration for this article!
Also, Maybe you can do an article regarding the phenomena I see here quite often (if you haven't already! I read these in order, so I'm over a year behind!). Someone finds a "mistake" in an article posted, comments & explains it, another person agrees that it should be worded differently or is incorrect, it gets corrected by the author, who comments something not as leetspeak as "OMG U R Rite! fixt!" and then 16 other people proceed to talk about it's wrong-ness, months and months after it's already been corrected. There's gotta be some psychological reasoning for that, yeah?


kazvorpal
Posted 24 June 2007 at 08:40 am

The initial premise of this article, that the average person cannot be above-average, is fallaceous. Never a good thing; to commit a major logical fallacy when attempting to criticize people for being illogical.

If there were a single standard by which to judge people, then the average person would, indeed, be average. But, instead, we have a nearly infinite range of possible criteria, and overall standards, which means that it's possible for everyone to be significantly above average.

What's more, even in a single area, when it's something like "leadership", it's possible for the average person to reasonably consider himself "above average", because the criteria are abstract. One could come up with a great many possible overall standards for "leadership", each of which would produce a different "above average" set, out of a given test group. Obviously, it would only require a single pair of different results for the average person to become above average, since one need only cite one of the two result sets.

With an actual group of people, you most certainly will have a number of conflicting sets of standards for "leadership" (et cetera). Of course you'll actually have as many definitions as you do individals, but they will probably fall into a number of overall groups. One may have a definition of good leadership that is dominated by the ability to tightly control others. A different group may focus on the delegation of authority, another on the ability to garner maximum cooperation, a fourth to achieve a given result, et cetera. In fact, it seems that Invader Zim agrees with the majority of Americans, that tallness is an important criterion...demonstrating that people really are, all too often, little more than animals.

Take George Bush's horrendous leadership skills as an example of a conflicting set. He clearly believes, as do a significant group of his lackeys, that a good leader doesn't admit that he's wrong, and pushes forward with a specific goal without adjusting it for the truths in criticism. That believing in anything is better than not, even if it's wrong...likewise that a good leader will take some action, even an errant one, rather than waiting for sufficient information. With this and similar criteria, Bush is an awesome leader.

But another group of people, whom I will stipulate are more rational, believe that a good leader listens to and encourages criticism, adjusts goals to feedback, not only admits when he's wrong, but does so as quickly and accurately as possible in order to keep himself as correct as possible, et cetera.

And, while since I was using that as an excuse to impugn Bush's horrific governing strategies (and no, I'm not a Liberal, nor Democrat, and I criticized Clinton just as harshly, for different things), in reality one could come up with a reasonable set of conflicting leadership criteria, which could even each produce above average leadership results.

The average person will, of course, tend to behave in the way his own criteria pool says is that of a good leader, so that it is quite likely that the average person will match his criteria in an above-average way.

Now it's entirely possible that, despite all of this, the common prole is incompetent to judge his own ability in many areas. But this doesn't mitigate the depth of the initial fallacy presented in this article. A false point leading to a, coincidentally, correct conclusion is just as bad as one leading to an errant one, from the perspective of credibility.


ConcernedCitizen
Posted 24 June 2007 at 11:09 pm

@kazvorpal: ah, the irony. the description of the experiments clearly states that the tests were conducted using specific, pre-selected "objective criteria," not something vague like "leadership skills." Also from the article, "One hopes the irony of these decisions was not lost on the researchers." your uninformed criticism on this subject is quite amusing.


Beautiful Confusion
Posted 20 August 2007 at 01:44 pm

paintist said: "All mathematics aside… isn't the "flawed" mentality here, or maybe I should say "deficient metacognitive skills", a positive outlook? Psychologists routinely suggest that people adopt either a realistic outlook or an unrealistic optimistic outlook. It seems to me that most people, or most people in those tests, have adopted an unrealistic optimistic outlook on life. And isn't an unrealistic optimistic outlook better than say… a realistic/unrealistic pessimistic outlook? Basically, isn't it better to think of oneself as better than average rather than average or below average? Despite the so-called metacognitives deficiencies that people "suffer from" or "fall prey to", isn't it still the "best" way to go about things?"

True, that may be a happier way to go through life but until you accurately assess how bad you are at something chances are you won't ever get better. So I think that knowing that you are below average is a good thing because that means that you know that you have to try harder to become average or above rather than just being oblivious in your ignorance.


Beautiful Confusion
Posted 20 August 2007 at 01:44 pm

paintist said: "All mathematics aside… isn't the "flawed" mentality here, or maybe I should say "deficient metacognitive skills", a positive outlook? Psychologists routinely suggest that people adopt either a realistic outlook or an unrealistic optimistic outlook. It seems to me that most people, or most people in those tests, have adopted an unrealistic optimistic outlook on life. And isn't an unrealistic optimistic outlook better than say… a realistic/unrealistic pessimistic outlook? Basically, isn't it better to think of oneself as better than average rather than average or below average? Despite the so-called metacognitives deficiencies that people "suffer from" or "fall prey to", isn't it still the "best" way to go about things?"

True, that may be a happier way to go through life but until you accurately assess how bad you are at something chances are you won't ever get better. So I think that knowing that you are below average is a good thing because that means that you know that you have to try harder to become average or above rather than just being oblivious in your ignorance.


Beautiful Confusion
Posted 20 August 2007 at 02:47 pm

I'm interested in learning just how much animals can see color and what not. I have sugar gliders and they will watch TV with me sometimes and when they look at me they seem to be seeing all of me like a human would.


farsahidia
Posted 11 September 2007 at 03:15 pm

"[...] 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 [...]"

Logical reasoning and English grammar are objective, but humor? Does anyone else realize how subjective the methodology of going by sense humor is?

"You don't find the Knights who say Ni funny? Incompetent!"


Kao_Valin
Posted 12 September 2007 at 12:02 pm

In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king. Add another eye and the two eyed man is now king. Keep adding eyes into infinity and one can begin to gather either that everyone is crap due to an unreachable ideal condition, or that simply being in the right place in time makes them the best regardless of how others percieve that individual. So that annoying boss who doesnt know how to run a nose, in winter, during a snowstorm, is really just the best cause he is your boss and you are still a working stiff doing all the work. It's more about the reality than the perception.

So what if you think you can do better if you didnt actually do it. One can't exactly measure ability based on things that never occured except in one's mind. One who complains about being in the back but does nothing to get up front (or top depending on perception) is just making noise. If one cant think of a way to get up front, well maybe one shouldnt be there either.


Kevin
Posted 30 September 2007 at 05:01 pm

Sean said: "It can be a very powerful and liberating thing to realize that a large percentage of the people who act superior to you are actually inferior… and not bright enough to realize it."

Very well stated, I couldn't agree more.


Cut And Paste
Posted 17 December 2007 at 06:19 pm

Good comments Montezuma #65 and Kao_Valin #82. Saved.


Stitch
Posted 07 April 2008 at 11:41 am

Incompetent people are not aware of their incompetence until they become more competent. Darn, is there another way? I'm sure we have all argued with a stubborn incompetent individual. Frustrating, isn't it?


CrowdKiller
Posted 08 May 2008 at 12:29 pm

rhea_sun said: "The more you learn, the less you know."

I know this is very long after the article was written, but I just thought I'd ask: How do you reason the above quote?. As I see it teh more you learn the more you know, because each new experience gives knowlege, thereby making sure that you ideed know more.

Just a thought


CrowdKiller
Posted 09 May 2008 at 08:54 am

I think I've answered my own question... I can see how one could reason that the more you learn, the more you see how little you really know.

Seems that I am really just incompetent. Just goes to prove I'm above average...


a1c
Posted 09 August 2008 at 04:17 pm

Humility is a virtue, for arrogance is surely a fool's errand.


a1c
Posted 09 August 2008 at 04:18 pm

Humility is a virtue, for arrogance is surely a fool's err.

(Ooops, there's no edit here... stupid me.)


Wuzzle
Posted 09 August 2008 at 05:45 pm

Going back to the "Is it possible for the majority to be above average?". I think that really depends on what skill or atribute we are discussing. If regarding intelligence, it's pretty much not. For example " A simple example would be to take ten numbers, nine of them are 9 and one of them is 1. The average would be ((9*9) + (1*1))/10 = 8.2 In this case the bulk of the numbers are above the average." There's no way that for every nine people of the intelligence of "9" there's going to be someone with an intel. of 1! What, is that person going to have 1/9 of the intelligence?! That doesn't even consider people with an intelligence of above average. Ok, I'm done ranting. Sorry for any/all spelin' skrewups.


ValiantDefender
Posted 19 November 2008 at 03:46 pm

I love this site. Every articel damn interesting..and then the comments are usually so damn interesting...I'd say we're all well above average here :D

I recall taking an aptitude test when I was 21 at the Johnoson O'Connor lab. After taking the test for memory for design I remember feeling like I had fallen far short of their expectations and telling the test administrator as much. She laughed and told me that I scored far above average and that it is strange how often the above average feel that they have done poorly. She explained that it is likely due to their superior understanding of the problem.

Of the 16 aptitudes tested, I scored far above average on 12. The "average" person scored above average on 3-5 tests. I have always suffered from an inferiority complex and perhaps now understand why *shrug* On the tests where I was not above average, I was Abysmally low. This leads me to believe that all people have a unique set of traits/talents/aptitudes. While someone may be inept at the computer, they might be a master manipulator or incredible musician.

Last comment. If our potential was the top of average, we would all be functioning somewhere far below average....just a thought, but I believe humanity is capable of far better than what we do...and usually due to selfishness.


ValiantDefender
Posted 19 November 2008 at 03:46 pm

p.s. I blame allen for all of the lack of productivity at work!


Mr Studworthy
Posted 06 April 2009 at 09:45 pm

Marius said: I will grant that the data in this study are somewhat fuzzy, but overall I have to agree with the Harvey Danger song, 'Been around the world and found that only stupid people are breeding…' (of course, I too may just be a dumbass and not know it) ;-)"

Read the DI article "Eugenics" - http://www.damninteresting.com/?p=962 , your in good company


Mr Studworthy
Posted 06 April 2009 at 09:49 pm

CrowdKiller said: "I know this is very long after the article was written, but I just thought I'd ask: How do you reason the above quote?. As I see it the more you learn the more you know, because each new experience gives knowledge, thereby making sure that you indeed know more.

Old 'Biker' once said " The more you know the more you realise that the people who don't know, don't know" LOL


AlienOverlord
Posted 30 April 2009 at 07:18 am

You humans make me laugh. Intelligence? On Earth? Bwahahahaha.


TexanREDNeck
Posted 24 July 2009 at 01:01 pm

Yerah I saw theys plenty of dumber people out there. I don't kno why ya'll gotta use such bigole word.s


twentydollarbill
Posted 04 October 2009 at 12:29 pm

I am unskilled, incompetent, and very self aware of it. In most tasks, I perform way below average, and constantly struggle to hold a steady job -- my entire life. I'm 26 years old. What I'm about tell you, is a long held secret conspiracy -- 'stupid people' share in common.

Once upon a time, I had the ego.. confidence and determination, to never admit I was wrong. To lie about my skills. We... the incompetent people, fhave always ully realized our shortcomings, we simply don't want to admit it.

* People who are viewed incompetent, often make less money, have worse spouses, get teased a lot, and even get taken advantage of. Do you really want to be in this category? We sure the hell don't. But some of us are born 'dumb'.

We clearly recognize shortcomings of others too. I'm often drawn to intelligent people, and prefer to be around them. I enjoy learning and trying to figure out topics, that are clearly over my head However, it is true that many ignorant people, do infact, prefer the company, of other ignorant individuals. Simply because a disguise isn't necessary around our own kind.

Let us pretend we're 'above average', damn it. Because before I read the comments, I thought median and average had the same defintion.


Steel Trap Mind
Posted 13 January 2010 at 06:31 am

I have an above average number of legs.

And arms, eyes, ears...


joelsantinho
Posted 02 February 2010 at 08:31 am

incompetents in one area, can and probably are competent in other areas. The promoted "ignorants" are good at deceiving, for example


Soso chu
Posted 30 April 2014 at 04:30 am

joelsantinho said: "incompetents in one area, can and probably are competent in other areas. The promoted "ignorants" are good at deceiving, for example"


cyrille
Posted 25 August 2014 at 05:48 am

MaddMan said: "Just to verify my sanity, it isn't really possible for most people to be above average, is it?"

Depends how you define 'most', 'average' and the distribution probability of your data...

using 'normal' definition for average:

given 4 numbers: 10, 9, 8 and -100, 3 of these numbers are "above average"...

Assuming that the data is of chi square type (with no maximum value, but with a minimum value), it is still possible to have more samples 'above' average, but does that fulfill your definition of 'most' might be a mater of debate...

Given a large enough sample of chi square distributed data, the normal definiton of average and most meaning at least 60%, then the probability of 'most people being above average' is very very low...

cyrille


Seira
Posted 29 August 2014 at 09:41 pm

At first I admire their confidence and ability to perform this task which I decided I would be poor at. However, almost without fail, when this person returns with their results it is significantly worse than what I could have accomplished. I always asked myself "How could they be so confident yet produce such crap?" After going through this many times I finally came to the conclusion that was reached in this study.

I was beginning to doubt myself. Thank you, dear fellow doubter, for providing some measure of reaffirmation :D


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