You Think You’re So Smart…

30 Mar

“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.

Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average. (It's actually Lake Monowai in New Zealand, but never mind.)

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??


7 Responses to “You Think You’re So Smart…”

  1. Joan Cassie Mathias March 27, 2011 at 10:43 am #

    I love this post. It is so true. What do you think the motivations behind it are? Do you know if the inaccurate self perceptions remain even after people are given continuous feedback that their abilities are below (or above) what they think they are? For example, do you think that you are able to understand that you are bad at math, perhaps because you struggled with math more than other academic subjects? I, for one, am the first to admit that I am a bad driver, and I assume it is because of the constant evaluations I have gotten from the people who have dared to drive with me telling me…and the fact that both accidents I have gotten into have been in a driveway.

    • Rachel Funk March 27, 2011 at 11:11 am #

      The paper actually does address that to some extent — apologies for not including it.

      In a nutshell, when people in the bottom quartile saw the superior performance of their peers, it didn’t change their perception of their own abilities (although interestingly, it did make the perception of people in the top quartile more accurate). But when the bottom participants were actually trained to be better in that field, they also became better at telling how good they were at it. Further, while people in the middle quartiles tended to overestimate their abilities as well, they did so to a much lesser extent than the people in the bottom quartile. (The authors had an explanation for why it wasn’t simply a matter of playing the odds, i.e., people in the bottom simply being more likely, statistically speaking, to overestimate their ability, but I didn’t really understand it, so I left it out. :-) )

      So if Kruger and Dunning are right, even though we acknowledge that we’re bad at math/driving, the odds are that we’re actually even worse than we think we are (horrifying thought, that). But because we know we’re bad, we’re probably not overestimating our abilities as much as people who are unaware that they’re bad. I think that’s how it goes, anyway…

  2. DAS March 27, 2011 at 2:28 pm #

    Aren’t there similar studies relating to law school? Don’t men tend to overestimate how well they’ll do (and women underestimate), or something like that? If true (maybe it’s not), knowledge in a particular domain may not be the best explanation. What do you think?

  3. bgreaney March 28, 2011 at 2:15 pm #

    This same trend is found in people’s perception of their attractiveness. In Freakonomics, a study of online dating profiles showed that most online daters rate themselves as “above average,” while an incredibly small number rate themselves as below average. While the book goes on to highlight some other comical statistics of online dating, these self-perception statistics mean that either online daters are just incredibly beautiful people, or (more likely), we all like to overestimate our attractiveness. Too funny!

  4. Playful Socrates December 28, 2017 at 8:46 am #

    “So the question we’re left with is: how has the human race survived this long??”
    Well, that’s obvious….but then again, I’m smarter than most folks so maybe it isn’t as obvious to others!? (joking…..just joking)
    I do have some loosely arrived at theories that are based on the notion that we should not minimize the “sculpting” effects of 3million years of evolution. Put differently, it is probably not an accident that humans possess any of these biases, and the question actually is: “what is the survival value of the (collective) species having these predilections?”
    The other real question is, are these traits that helped us survive and “get here” in this space/time continuum….going to prove to be no longer helpful for humankind going forward?! And, in fact, may be our undoing (based on our current political “primordial soup”)?


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