How do you know if you’re incompetent?

Today I thought I’d write about a blast from the past. Well, for me, at least. A few months before friend (and colleague) of the blog Deb and I started at APA, one of APA’s journals published an article titled “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”.

I frankly love this article, which garnered the authors, David Dunning and Justin Kruger, an Ig Nobel award. I know this research is over 10 years old, but you can’t tell me that incompetence and metacognitive errors have gone away since then 😉

What the authors found was that the lowest scorers on various tests “grossly overestimated their test performance and ability.” Even more interesting, when they were educated so that their scores increased, their ability to see their own incompetence also increased.

You should really read the article, as the explanations that open the article are even more interesting than the tests Dunning and Kruger used. This article and some of their other work led to what is colloquially known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

It’s the sort of thing that you notice when you realize that some enormous percentage of people rate their skills as “above average.” This is, naturally, statistically impossible. (The Dunning-Kruger effect is closely related to the Lake Wobegon effect. You know, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”)

As is common in psychological research of this sort, all the subject were undergraduates. However, I believe they have replicated the effect in grownups. And I think these results stand, even years later, as an interesting piece of work. (Note: I haven’t read any of their more recent work, although I could probably get my hands on some of it if I wanted to. I am lazy, yo.)

And, I must note, this article contains the absolute best concluding paragraph of any journal article ever. Just for this, I would love them forever:

Although we feel we have done a competent job in making a strong case for this analysis, studying it empirically, and drawing out relevant implications, our thesis leaves us with one haunting worry that we cannot vanquish. That worry is that this article may contain faulty logic, methodological errors, or poor communication. Let us assure our readers that to the extent this article is imperfect, it is not a sin we have committed knowingly.



About mamamara

I'm a 40-something, work-at-home mother of two. I'm pro-vaccine, pro-medicine, pro-science, and an avid reader of information about all of the above, and I want to combine my love for my children with my love for science. So here we are!
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