In 1999, Justin Kruger and David Dunning of Cornell University published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology to report on a study which suggests that  people who are incompetent are not capable of recognizing their own incompetence, and difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence leads to inflated self-assessments. Link to the original paper: Unskilled and unaware of it

The anecdote:

“In 1995, McArthur Wheeler walked into two Pittsburgh banks and robbed them in broad daylight, with no visible attempt at disguise. He was arrested later that night, less than an hour after videotapes of him taken from surveillance cameras were broadcast on the 11 o’clock news. When police later showed him the surveillance tapes, Mr. Wheeler stared in incredulity. “But I wore the juice,” he mumbled. Apparently, Mr. Wheeler was under the impression that rubbing one’s face with lemon juice rendered it invisible to videotape cameras.”

The 3 points of this anecdote:

1/ Whatever you do, whether you are successful depends on your knowledge, wisdom, skills and street-smarts. This includes teaching, learning and raising children.

2/ People differ in the knowledge, skills and strategies that they will apply for a given situation.

3/ When people are incompetent in their knowledge, skills and strategies, they make wrong/unfortunate choices, and they are unable to realize it.

For example, the writing of a grammatically correct sentence requires certain knowledge and skills. It is the same knowledge and skills needed to recognize a grammatically correct sentence written by someone else, and the same knowledge and skills needed to identify a grammar error.

In our writing classes, we do not just provide our students with samples of good writings. We have exercises to criticize writings made by other students, and to identify errors in passages. The objective is to assess if they have attained the required level of competence, and mastered the vocabulary, grammar, techniques and skills.

Dunning-Kruger Effect in cartoon 2

The conclusions of the research paper:

  1. Incompetence leads to poor performance.
  2. “Ignorance is bliss” People who are incompetent fails to recognize their incompetence.
  3. “Ignorance begets confidence” People who are incompetent tends to over-rate themselves, and mistakenly believes that they are above average.
  4. The cause of incompetence is a lack of metacognitive skills.
  5. Improving the skills of the incompetent improves their ability to self-appraise.
  6. Improving the skills of the incompetent improves their ability to recognize their previous errors.
  7. Improving the skills of the incompetent makes them competent.
  8. On the other end of the scale, highly competent professionals tend to under-estimate their ability compared to others. However, this is a psychological false-consensus effect. That is, high-performers know that they do well objectively. But they assumed that others are doing just as well, so they tend to depreciate their own top-tier results.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect in a chart.

Why do incompetent people not receive feedback on their failures? Why do their skills not improve with life experiences? Why do incompetent people stay self-centered and deluded?

Some reasons:

  1. If you do not have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” People seldom receive negative feedback and constructive criticism about their skills and abilities from others in their everyday life.
  2. In some places, and for some tasks, the situation is such that the incompetent will not receive feedback that will correct the mistake, e.g. when you are in the process of robbing a bank, believing that lemon juice will make you invisible.
  3. Even when an incompetent person receives feedback, s/he needs to understand the exact error that led to the mistake in the first place. For success to happen, many things must go right: the person must have the skills, apply effort, and, perhaps, be lucky. For failure to happen, only one condition needs to go wrong. It is more likely to fail than to succeed.
  4. Incompetent people are unable to recognize competence or professionalism even when they are seeing it with their own eyes. So they often fail to benefit from social comparison with a more competent person. They fail to gain insights; they fail to accurately assess how inferior their own decisions are; and they fail to make the necessary adjustments.
  5. The next time you receive criticism from your teacher, your colleague or your boss, be accepting, be self-depreciating, reflect on the feedback, learn, improve yourself and say “thank you”.
  6. Some incompetent people may have recognized their deficiencies, but are not motivated to learn the skills required or to make the necessary behavioral adjustments.
  7. Some incompetent people selectively recall past behavior. They conveniently forget the majority of incidents when they were incompetent. A student may recall the one minor test that s/he got 35/40, but conveniently forget the five major exams that s/he got 19/40 .
  8. Incompetent people tend to ignore the proficiency of others.
  9. There may be self-serving purposes to stay incompetent. For example, during  lessons in school, a teacher may tend to question incompetent students less often than “clever” students. The incompetent ones may choose to stay incompetent to avoid being openly “arrowed” during lessons.

Dunning-Kruger Effect in cartoon

In some domains, competence depends on factors that are hard to change, such as nature-endowed attributes and physical skills. For example, the coach of Usain Bolt may know all about the finer points of sprinting, but does not have the physique to attain top-flight performance.  Thankfully, learning and parenting are domains where incompetence can be corrected by gaining the required knowledge, wisdom and process skills.

Our teaching is informed by cognitive science research. We are constantly analyzing the performance of our students for such incompetence and failures, with the intend of instilling awareness and correcting the cognitive biases.

The summary of the research paper:

“People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it. 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. Several analyses linked this miscalibration to deficits in metacognitive skill, or the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error. Paradoxically, improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities.”