Incompetent and Unaware

The Unaware

It is a half funny joke: most people in a group would rate themselves above the average not recognizing that some people have to be below the average in addition to those above it. All people, but perhaps most especially people in improvement-related occupations such as Black Belts, must be open to feedback and self-improvement. Yet as this fascinating study shows, many people are blind to their lack of competence. Indeed, it is the relatively incompetent who are least able to recognize their own lack of competence. Most Black Belts I have coached are quite open to feedback and exhibit good self-awareness. However the people who most disagreed with negative feedback were, as this study found, the most unable to recognize their own limitations.

In a 1999 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology titled “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” Justin Kruger and David Dunning of Cornell wrote:

People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.

Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although their test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd.

Several analyses linked this miscalibration to deficits in metacognitive skill, or the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error. Paradoxically, improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities.

In essence, we argue that the skills that engender competence in a particular domain are often the very same skills necessary to evaluate competence in that domain—one’s own or anyone else’s.

Because of this, incompetent individuals lack what cognitive psychologists variously term metacognition (Everson & Tobias, 1998), meta memory (Klin, Guizman, & Levine, 1997), meta comprehension (Maki, Jonas, & Kallod, 1994), or self-monitoring skills (Chi, Glaser, & Rees, 1982).

These terms refer to the ability to know how well one is performing, when one is likely to be accurate in judgment, and when one is likely to be in error. For example, consider the ability to write grammatical English. The skills that enable one to construct a grammatical sentence are the same skills necessary to recognize a grammatical sentence, and thus are the same skills necessary to determine if a grammatical mistake has been made.

In short, the same knowledge that underlies the ability to produce correct judgment is also the knowledge that underlies the ability to recognize correct judgment. To lack the former is to be deficient in the latter.

Interestingly, highly competent people suffer from underestimating their abilities.

Specifically, top-quartile participants appear to have fallen prey to a false-consensus effect (Ross et al, 1977). Simply put, these participants assumed that because they performed so well, their peers must have performed well likewise. This would have led top-quartile participants to underestimate their comparative abilities (i.e., how their general ability and test performance compare with that of their peers), but not their absolute abilities (i.e., their raw score on the test).

This was precisely the pattern of data we observed: Compared with participants falling in the third quartile, participants in the top quartile were an average of 23% less calibrated in terms of their comparative performance on the test—but 16% more calibrated in terms of their objective performance on the test.

More conclusive evidence came from Phase 2 of Study 3. Once top-quartile participants learned how poorly their peers had per-formed, they raised their self-appraisals to more accurate levels. We have argued that unskilled individuals suffer a dual burden: Not only do they perform poorly, but they fail to realize it.

It thus appears that extremely competent individuals suffer a burden as well. Although they perform competently, they fail to realize that their proficiency is not necessarily shared by their peers.

Why doesn’t feedback work? The authors wrote:

One puzzling aspect of our results is how the incompetent fail, through life experience, to learn that they are unskilled. This is not a new puzzle. Sullivan, in 1953, marveled at “the failure of learning which has left their capacity for fantastic, self-centered delusions so utterly unaffected by a life-long history of educative events”.

With that observation in mind, it is striking that our student participants overestimated their standing on academically oriented tests as familiar to them as grammar and logical reasoning. Although our analysis suggests that incompetent individuals are unable to spot their poor performances themselves, one would have thought negative feedback would have been inevitable at some point in their academic career.

So why had they not learned? One reason is that people seldom receive negative feedback about their skills and abilities from others in everyday life (Blumberg, 1972; Darley & Fazio, 1980; Goffman, 1955; Matlin & Stang, 1978; Tesser & Rosen, 1975). Even young children are familiar with the notions that “if you do not have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

Second, the bungled robbery attempt of McArthur Wheeler notwithstanding, some tasks and settings preclude people from receiving self-correcting information that would reveal the suboptimal nature of their decisions (Einhorn, 1982).

Third, even if people receive negative feedback, they still must come to an accurate understanding of why that failure has occurred. The problem with failure is that it is subject to more attributional ambiguity than success. For success to occur, many things must go right: The person must be skilled, apply effort, and perhaps be a bit lucky. For failure to occur, the lack of any one of these components is sufficient.

Because of this, even if people receive feedback that points to a lack of skill, they may attribute it to some other factor (Snyder, Higgins, & Stucky, 1983;Snyder, Shenkel, & Lowery, 1977). Finally, Study 3 showed that incompetent individuals may be unable to take full advantage of one particular kind of feedback: social comparison. One of the ways people gain insight into their own competence is by watching the behavior of others (Festinger,1954; Gilbert, Giesler & Morris, 1995).

In a perfect world, everyone could see the judgments and decisions that other people reach, accurately assess how competent those decisions are, and then revise their view of their own competence by comparison. However, Study 3 showed that incompetent individuals are unable to take full advantage of such opportunities. Compared with their more expert peers, they were less able to spot competence when they saw it, and as a consequence, were less able to learn that their ability estimates were incorrect.

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