Why Stupid People Say They Are Smart

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You’re pretty smart right? Clever, and funny too. Of course you are, just like me. But wouldn’t it be terrible if we were mistaken? Psychologists have shown that we are more likely to be blind to our own failings than perhaps we realise. This could explain why some incompetent people are so annoying, and also inject a healthy dose of humility into our own sense of self-regard.

In 1999, Justin Kruger and David Dunning, from Cornell University, New York, tested whether people who lack the skills or abilities for something are also more likely to lack awareness of their lack of ability. At the start of their research paper they cite a Pittsburgh bank robber called McArthur Wheeler as an example, who was arrested in 1995 shortly after robbing two banks in broad daylight without wearing a mask or any other kind of disguise. When police showed him the security camera footage, he protested “But I wore the juice”. The hapless criminal believed that if you rubbed your face with lemon juice you would be invisible to security cameras.

Kruger and Dunning were interested in testing another kind of laughing matter. They asked professional comedians to rate 30 jokes for funniness. Then, 65 undergraduates were asked to rate the jokes too, and then ranked according to how well their judgements matched those of the professionals. They were also asked how well they thought they had done compared to the average person.

As you might expect, most people thought their ability to tell what was funny was above average. The results were, however, most interesting when split according to how well participants performed. Those slightly above average in their ability to rate jokes were highly accurate in their self-assessment, while those who actually did the best tended to think they were only slightly above average. Participants who were least able to judge what was funny (at least according to the professional comics) were also least able to accurately assess their own ability.

This finding was not a quirk of trying to measure subjective sense of humour. The researchers repeated the experiment, only this time with tests of logical reasoning and grammar. These disciplines have defined answers, and in each case they found the same pattern: those people who performed the worst were also the worst in estimating their own aptitude. In all three studies, those whose performance put them in the lowest quarter massively overestimated their own abilities by rating themselves as above average.

It didn’t even help the poor performers to be given a benchmark. In a later study, the most incompetent participants still failed to realise they were bottom of the pack even when given feedback on the performance of others.

Kruger and Dunning’s interpretation is that accurately assessing skill level relies on some of the same core abilities as actually performing that skill, so the least competent suffer a double deficit. Not only are they incompetent, but they lack the mental tools to judge their own incompetence.

In a key final test, Kruger and Dunning trained a group of poor performers in logical reasoning tasks. This improved participants’ self-assessments, suggesting that ability levels really did influence self-awareness.

Other research has shown that this “unskilled and unaware of it” effect holds in real-life situations, not just in abstract laboratory tests. For example, hunters who know the least about firearms also have the most inaccurate view of their firearm knowledge, and doctors with the worst patient-interviewing skills are the least likely to recognise their inadequacies.

What has become known as the Dunning-Kruger effect is an example of what psychologists call metacognition – thinking about thinking. It’s also something that should give us all pause for thought. The effect might just explain the apparently baffling self belief of some of your friends and colleagues. But before you start getting too smug, just remember one thing. As unlikely as you might think it is, you too could be walking around blissfully ignorant of your ignorance.

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