Just look at our intense national confidence! Ergo, we are doing well as a nation!
Not so fast, scientists have warned. There is actually an inverse relationship between one’s own incompetence and one’s awareness of one’s incompetence. In a 2003 article entitled “Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence,” psychologists from Cornell and the University of Illinois determined 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, and 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.
In one experiment, students were asked to estimate how well they did relative to other students taking an exam. The bottom 25% of performers generally estimated that they performed in the top half of of the class. This is not an isolated example. Incompetent people will generally overestimate their performance. This has been tested in real-world settings such as hunters who were asked about their knowledge of firearms and medical lab technicians who were asked to assess their knowledge of medical terminology. This disconnect exists even when participants are promised money for accurate assessments of their performance.
The psychologists writing this article noted the double curse of incompetence. In many domains, “the skills needed to produce correct responses are virtually identical to those needed to evaluate the accuracy of one’s responses.” Thus, incompetent performers (those who don’t know enough to know whether they are getting individual questions right) don’t know enough to know when their answers (or anyone else’s answers) are correct. Here’s the irony: “if poor performers had the skills needed to distinguish accuracy from error, they would then have the skills needed to avoid poor performance in the first place.”
How does it occur that incompetent performers are so willing to overestimate their incompetent performance? The authors of the study believe it begins when the human tendency to employ a “top down approach.” People start with preconceived beliefs about their own skill levels, over-optimistic beliefs that are not anchored to reality.
The study also notes that top performers, because they are more skilled at recognizing the difficulty of the task they are undertaking, tend to underestimate their own performance.
At a time when we are confidently celebrating what we stand for as a nation, this study stood out to me as especially important. A major fissure has opened up across this land between A) those leaders who display great confidence that they (and this country) are doing well, and B) those who, though they might not display such confidence, appreciate the the huge hurdles to making this country great.
Politicians regularly point to their own confidence as support that they are performing well as leaders. Just as we need to beware of over-confident doctors, lawyers and teachers, we need to be wary of overconfident national leaders.
The above-mentioned study thus suggests the need for a huge national project: the need to educate voters with regard to the pervasive human vulnerability illustrated by this study. Voters need to be warned that they shouldn’t mistake confidence for competence. A worthy voter education program would warn the voters, in no uncertain terms, that competent candidates tend to downplay their own competence while incompetent candidates will stand up and crow, oblivious to their incompetence. They should also be warned that crowing incompetent candidates appear to be better leaders (but that is the subject of another post).
As Alfred North Whitehead observed, “Not ignorance, but ignorance of ignorance, is the death of knowledge . . .”