Why incompetent people are unaware of how incompetent they are

May 22, 2015

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The more ignorant we are of something, the more likely we are to disregard it and more importantly, the more likely we are to think we're accomplished at it. This is a problem, for obvious reasons.

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This is a scholium: a short commentary on something interesting.

This article has been updated, but first appeared on our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.


'You know nothing, Jon Snow', whispered Ygritte at the end. Or as Socrates said, 'the only true wisdom is that you know nothing'. Or to be more specific, Bertrand Russell put it, 'those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision'. All very poignant ways of summarising what psychologist David Dunning and his colleagues tested empirically in 2003:

People base their perceptions of performance, in part, on their preconceived notions about their skills. Because these notions often do not correlate with objective performance, they can lead people to make judgments about their performance that have little to do with actual accomplishment.

Clearly, we have work to do in getting our psychologists to be quite as efficient at communicating as Ygritte. Maybe an exile to the North. Essentially, they're saying that we assess how good we are at something by how good we assume we are based on our experiences. This isn't surprising, really. I mean, no one knows us as well as we know us. In fact, we could be considered 'experts' on ourselves. A scary thought perhaps, and something that causes several problems.

But David's finding poses an interesting problem, which we can glean from his far more succinct title:

Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence

The more talented you are at something, the less accomplished we feel and the less 'good' we assume we are at that same something. Or, put another way, the more incompetent you are, the more confidence you have in your ability. This is a result that has been proven again, and again, and again (and again) with all sorts of people. Basically, incompetent people are simply unaware of how incompetent they are. It's called the Dunning-Kruger effect.

How to fix it?

Well, this effect is probably because the more practiced and knowledgeable you are about something, the more you recognise the complexities involved and thus, just how much goes into being skilled at something. So, a good long term strategy is to get the incompetent person more involved in whatever they're doing.

Or, for something more short term, as Dunning and his colleagues propose, just tell the person directly how incompetent they are (another reason to exile psychologists to the North).

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