“It is one of the essential features of such incompetence that the person so afflicted is incapable of knowing that he is incompetent. To have such knowledge would already be to remedy a good portion of the offense.”
~ W. I. Miller (quoted in Kruger & Dunning)
Most people believe that they are above average. Now, I’d be the first to tell you that I’m terrible at math, but even I can see something’s wrong here.
This phenomenon — known by a variety of names, including the “above-average effect”, “superiority bias”, “illusory superiority”, and, my personal favorite, the “Lake Wobegon effect” — is manifested in a variety of areas, including bias, popularity, and driving ability. In short, whatever we’re talking about, odds are we think we’re better than most people at it.
One interesting variation on this theme is the Downing effect: according to a series of studies done by C. L. Downing, people with a below-average IQ tend to overestimate their IQ, while people with an above-average IQ tend to underestimate their IQ. In a similar vein, studies by British psychologist Adrian Furnham suggest that, on average, men are more likely to overestimate their intelligence, while women are more likely to underestimate their IQ. Coincidence? I think not.
More on our inability to tell how smart we are after the jump.
In their influential paper Unskilled and Unaware of It, Justin Kruger and David Dunning set out to test how precisely the above-average effect works, using a series of studies designed to test subjects’ competence in humor, logical reasoning, and English grammar.
What their studies revealed is both intriguing and alarming. Across the board, most participants overestimated their competence relative to their peers in each area. But it was the people at the bottom who took the cake. In the humor study, for instance, participants scoring in the bottom percentile overestimated their abilities by a whopping 46 percentile points. And in all four studies, people in the bottom percentile believed themselves to be above average relative to their peers. In contrast, people scoring in the top quartile tended to underestimate their ability relative to their peers. (Sad to say, the authors reported that gender had no effect whatsoever on the results.)
So what causes this mismatch between actual and perceived ability? Kruger and Dunning 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” (1121). In other words, the more incompetent someone is in a given area, the more incapable they are of evaluating how good at it they are. In fancy psych-speak, “incompetent individuals lack the metacognitive skills necessary for accurate self-assessment” (1222).
While fascinating in an academic sense, it’s also rather worrying in a practical sense. If we’re good at something, we know we’re good at it. But if we’re bad at it, we still think we’re good at it. In fact, the worse we are, the more we overestimate how good we are at it.
In short, we think we’re good at everything. But we’re not.
So the question we’re left with is: how has the human race survived this long??