Don’t argue with incompetent people, they are much smarter than you are…

One of my enduring points of interest is why people do the things they do.  Why people think the things they do.  I believe that a long time, favorite research paper offers some clues as to the basis for some of these questions.

In 1999 (yes, I have been reading research studies for that long and longer), Justin Kruger and David Dunning published the results of a study they conducted while at Cornell University.  They titled their report, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.”  The basis of their study seemed to be trying to find a way to measure metacognition, or an ability of a person to be aware of their own thought process, and be able to accurately assess it.  A study that would earn them an IgNoble award for psychology the following year, in October of 2000.  They hypothesized that; those with fewer skills in an intellectual endeavor would similarly lack the skill to accurately report on, or recognize the quality of their performance.

Their methodology was essentially to give a group a series of written tests and ask them to report on how well they thought they did in relation to the other subjects in the group.  In the second series, they were also asked to estimate how many questions they had answered correctly.  In the third series, they were additionally tasked with “grading” each other’s work.  This involved subjects examining the answers of others and estimating how well their peers did.  They were then asked to estimate their own performance again, in light of having seen the work of others.

What they found, was that the subjects who had the lowest scores tended to overestimate their performance by the largest margins, while those who fell into the 50th percentile or higher tended to report more accurately or even underestimate their performance.  In the second series, those who scored better were able to estimate, with some accuracy, how many question they answered correctly.  Those in the bottom 25% overestimated their scores greatly, along with grossly misreporting their perceived performance relative to their peers.  In the third series, they had the chance to examine each other’s work and amend their estimates.  Those who scored in the top 25% more accurately revised their estimate of peer standing upwards, while their estimate of how many questions they answered correctly remained the same.  The lowest 25%, after seeing the work of others, actually revised their estimates of performance and correctly answered questions upwards!  Whether you find it surprising or not, the people who did the worst, thought they performed even better once they saw the work of those who actually did perform better.

I thought this study suggested possible sources of so many observations of human behavior.  To paraphrase another old adage, to admit that you know nothing is the beginning of wisdom.  Many questions were left unanswered.  There was no attempt to correlate any of the results with any measure of general intelligence.  There was only the performance on the tests themselves. The study leaves us to speculate as to whether this issue is related to intelligence in general, or simply one’s familiarity with the subject matter at hand.  Are the results more closely related to an ability to accurately self-report independent of intelligence?

I mean…  That, and I thought it was amusing as hell…

Works Cited

Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(6), 1121-1134.


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