Beware of confident people. They might be ignorant of their own ignorance.

July 3, 2006 | By | 5 Replies More

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 . . .”


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Category: American Culture, Education, Politics, Psychology Cognition, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (5)

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    "…[I]ncompetent candidates will stand up and crow, oblivious to their own incompetence." Gosh, for a minute there I thought Erich was talking about Fundamentalist preachers, who seem to love crowing about how they are "saved" and everyone else is evil.

    This discussion of faulty self-perception reminds me of another study in which something like 40% of the people (Americans) surveyed believed they were in the top 10% income bracket. When we hear that Bush's policies benefit the rich, I often wonder how many of such people support Bush because they falsely believe themselves to be among the rich who are benefitting.

  2. Erika Price says:

    Good connection, grumpy. That in turn reminds me of the "Lake Wobegon Effect" in which nearly ever state in the US reports that its students perform "above average" on standardized tests. Parents feel the same way about their own children, too.


  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    Great article, Erika! It's a good reminder that, in fact, half the people in America have a below-average IQ. And those who do, voted for Bush.

  4. Heather says:

    It reminds me that something like seventy-five percent of obese people think that they have an average and healthy weight.

    Political themes aside, this trend has so much to do with the media. Complete idiots who can't even say a sentence correctly (kind of like President Bush) are rich and famous. We live in a culture obsessed with them, and a culture with a major entitlement complex.

  5. grumpypilgrim says:

    Heather's comment reminds me of all the drivers out there who believe their driving is better than average, even though 40,000 traffic deaths annually (in America) would obviously suggest otherwise.

    As regards the factors that govern the distribution of fame and fortune, money often counts for far more successes than do brains or talent, at least in the field of politics. Bush's campaigns, for example, were both very heavily financed. Gore's and Kerry's were, too, but nothing like the war chest from Bush's rich supporters.. And now that Bush has concentrated even more wealth in the hands of a few, the trend seems likely to continue: poor people scrambling to pay their bills and having no time for politics; rich people deciding who will be "their" next candidate, and spending the person into office. This is Republican capitalism: stack the cards in favor of those already rich and kick down the ladder for those who aren't.

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