Reblogging 2008: Failing to recognize your own incompetence

From the “10 years of keetblog – reblogging: 2008”: On those uncomfortable truths on the difference between knowing what you don’t know and not knowing what you don’t know… (and one of the earlier Ig Nobel prize winners 15 years ago)

Failing to recognize your own incompetence; Aug 25, 2008


Somehow, each time when I mention to people the intriguing 2000 Ig Nobel prize winning paper “Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments” [1], they tend to send (non)verbal signals demonstrating a certain discomfort. Then I tone it down a bit, saying that one could argue about the set up of the experiment that led Kruger & Dunning to their conclusion. Now—well, based on material from a few years ago but I found out recently—I cannot honestly say that anymore either. A paper from the same authors, “Why people fail to recognize their own incompetence” [2], reports not only more of their experiments in different settings, but also different experiments by other researchers validating the basic tenet that ignorant and incompetent people do not realize they are incompetent but rather think more favourably of themselves—“tend to hold overinflated views of their skills”—than can be justified based on their performance.

Yeah, the shoe might fit. Or not. In addition to the lower end of the scale overestimating their competencies by a large margin, the converse happens, though to a lesser extent, at the other end of the scale, where top-experts underestimate their actual capabilities. The latter brings it own set of problems and research directions, which I will set aside for the remainder of this blog post. Instead, I will dwell a bit on those people bragging to know this that and the other, but, alas, do not perform properly and, moreover, do not even realize they do not. Facing a person who knows s/he does not have the required skills is one thing and generally s/he’s willing to listen and learn or say to not care about it, but those people who do not realize the knowledge/skills gap they have are, well, a hopeless bunch futile to waste your time on (unless you teach them anyway).

 Let us have a look what those psychologists provided to come to this conclusion. Aside from the experiment about jokes in the ’99 paper, which are at least (sub)culture-dependent, the data about the introductory-level psychology class taken by 141 students is quite telling. Right after the psych exam, the students were asked about their own estimate of performance & mastery of the course material (relative to other students in their class) and to estimate their raw score of the exam. These were the results ([2] p84, Fig.1):

If you think such kind of data is only observed with undergraduates in psychology, well, then check [2]’s references: debate teams, hunters about their firearms, medical residents (over)estimating their patient-interviewing techniques, medical lab technicians overestimating their knowledge of medical terminology—you name it, the same pattern, even if the subjects were held a carrot of monetary incentive in an attempt to assess themselves honestly.

 Imagine you going to a GP or doctor of a regional hospital who has the arrogance to know it all and does not call in a specialist on time. One can debate about the harmfulness or harmlessness about such cases. A very recent incident I observed was where x1 and x2 demanded from y to do nonsensical task z. Task z—exemplifying ignorance and incompetence of x1 and x2—was not carried out by y for it could not be done, but it was nevertheless used by x1 and x2 to “demonstrate” “(inherent) incompetence” of y because y did not do task z, whereas, in fact, it the only thing it shows is that y, unlike x1 and x2, may actually have realized z could not be done, hence, understand z better than x1 and x2 do. One’s incompetence [in this case, of x1 and x2] can have far-reaching effects on others around oneself. Trying to get x1 and x2 to realize their shortcomings has not worked thus far. Dunning et al’s students, however, had exam results for unequivocal feedback and there was an additional test set up with a controlled setting where they had built-in a lecture to teach the incompetent so as to rate their competencies better (which worked to some extent), but in real life those options are not always available. What options are available, if any? A prevalent approach I observed here in Italy (well, in academia at least) is that Italians tend to ignore those xs so as to limit as much as possible the ‘air time’ and attention they have, i.e., an avoidance strategy to leave the incompetent be, whereas, e.g., in the Netherlands people will tend to keep on talking until they have blisters on their tongues (figuratively) to try to get some sense in the xs heads, and yet others attempt to sweep things under the carpet and pray there will not appear any wobbles one could fall over. Research directions, let alone some practical suggestions on “how to let people become aware of their intellectual and social deficiencies”—other than ‘teach them’—were not mentioned in the article, but made it to the list of future works.

 You might wonder: does this hold across cultures? The why of the ‘ignorant and unaware of it’ gives some clues that, in theory, culture may not have anything to do with it.

“In many intellectual and social domains, the skills needed to produce correct responses are virtually identical to those needed to evaluate the accuracy of one’s responses… Thus, if people lack the skills to produce correct answers, they are also cursed with an inability to know when their, or anyone else’s, are right or wrong. They cannot recognize their responses as mistaken, or other people’s responses as superior to their own.” ([2], p. 86—emphasis added)

The principal problem has to do with so-called meta-cognition, which “refers to the ability to evaluate responses as correct or incorrect”, and incompetence then entails that one cannot successfully complete such a task; this is a catch-22, but, as mentioned, ‘outside intervention’ through teaching appeared to work and other means are a topic of further investigation. Clearly, a culture of arrogance can make significant stats more significant, but it does not change the principle of the cause. In this respect, the start of the article aptly quotes Confucius: “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance”. Conversely, according to Whitehead (quoted on p. 86 of [2]), “it is not ignorance, but ignorance of ignorance, that is the death of knowledge”.


[1] Kruger, J., Dunning, D. Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of personality and Social Psychology, 1999, 77: 1121-1134.

[2] Dunning, D., Johnson, K., Ehrlinger, J., Kruger, J. Why people fail to recognize their own incompetence. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2003, 12(3): 83-87.

 p.s.: I am aware of the fact that I do not know much about psychology, so my rendering, interpretation, and usage of the content of those papers may well be inaccurate, although I fancy the thought that I understood them.


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