Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Stupid and don't know it?: how difficulties in recognising your own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessment

As an adult educator I meet a variety of people and encounter a number of learning types. When you walk into a training room in my job, you hope to have a nice cooperative and interactive group, but there are two types of people you dread having in the room.

One of the very worst by far is either of the silent student types:

  • the passive aggressive – I don’t want to be here, I was forced to be here
  • the scared weird little guy/girl – I don’t know why I’m here, are you sure I’m in the right course?

Too many of these types of people will often result in little or no interaction and a really flat class.

The very worst however, is the know-it-all. Often when training people in their own workplace, they believe that they already know everything, and they want you and everyone else in the room to acknowledge their superiority. Most of the time, these people are overestimating their own level of knowledge. These people can often be identified a result of having someone external to their company or department tell them how to do tasks they have been doing – often incorrectly – for a long time.

I always thought that these people were just smart arses, or misguided fools who do part of a process but think they know how all of it works, but a couple of Cornell University researchers have put a lot of thought and time into the phenomena and gave it a name the Dunning-Kruger effect. They summarise the phenomena as “people who have little knowledge think that they know more than others who have much more knowledge” or as Charles Darwin put it "ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge".

Dunning and Krugers article was entitled "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments".

They hypothesised that:

  1. Incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their own level of skill.

  2. Incompetent individuals fail to recognise genuine skill in others.

  3. Incompetent individuals fail to recognise the extremity of their inadequacy.

  4. If they can be trained to substantially improve their own skill level, these individuals can recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill.

Dunning and Kruger measured their hypotheses by having people assess themselves on various subjects and compare the results to objective assessments. They then showed the participants their own results and comparisons.

In short they found on average that truly knowledgeable people underestimated their knowledge and abilities and those with lower scores overestimated their abilities. Results after a second round of self assessments leveled out after objective comparisons.

I think it’s great to have a label that sounds scientific for what essentially comes down to people being disruptive smart arses.

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