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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.

Update December 2020: Recent re-analysis of the “Dunning-Kruger effect” data suggests that it may not be as widespread as originally concluded.

Update April 2022: Or is it?

Update May 2023: Probably not.