I’m not sure how or why this Wikipedia entry made it onto the Monday Morning Links at the Maggie’s Farm blog, but I am happy it did.
The link takes us to a page about psychological research into what is called the Dunning-Kruger effect.
David Dunning and Justin Kruger offered a thesis about the relationship between one’s actual competence and one’s estimation of one’s competence. See articles here and here.
To put it briefly, incompetent people tend systematically to overestimate their competence. Perhaps we should not be surprised to discover that such people are not even competent at evaluating their own incompetence.
Since incompetent people do not know they are incompetent, they do not try to overcome their incompetence. Being near-fanatical about their belief in their own competence, they have the greatest difficulty overcoming their incompetence.
By extension, competent people know what they do not know and therefore are constantly striving to improve their competence.
Happily enough, the Wikipedia entry offers some earlier versions of the same idea. Psychologists proved the point a dozen or so years ago. Great minds seem always to have known it.
Confucius: “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance."
Bertrand Russell: “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision."
Charles Darwin: “… ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge."
What does it all mean?
It might be telling us that those who have acquired real knowledge and competence have had to work at it. They know the joy of acquiring knowledge and competence by working at it, and thus, they are more likely to be more humble about their abilities. Don’t humility and doubt motivate people to keep on learning?
It might also be telling us that people who lack competence try to compensate by masking their inadequacy with a near-delusional belief in their own ability.
If they believe that they know more than they know they will be telling themselves that they need not work to learn more. Then again, their arrogant belief in their competence might have made it more difficult for them to put in the time and effort to acquire real competence.
A humble person is more likely to work harder to achieve competence. The arrogant person is more likely to rest on his laurels.
In principle, Dunning explains, people learn about their level of confidence by getting good feedback from others. They will strive to improve themselves when they see others doing better than they are.
This works well for people who are competent. They have a better accurate assessment of what they know and what they do not know. Those who are incompetent have far more difficulty overcoming their failings because they refuse to recognize that anyone is better than they are.
When faced with someone who has real skill, incompetent people refuse to recognize it. Here is an instance where setting a good example, becoming the kind of person that others will want to emulate, does not work.
Dunning explained it in a New York Times interview:
… people at the bottom, if you show them what other people do, they don’t get it. They don’t realize that what those other people are doing is superior to what they’re doing.
Dunning suggests that the best way to form an accurate self-assessment is to key off the feedback you get from other people. You will never know your competence level if you rely on how you feel about yourself.
In his words:
The road to self-insight really runs through other people. So it really depends on what sort of feedback you are getting. Is the world telling you good things? Is the world rewarding you in a way that you would expect a competent person to be rewarded? If you watch other people, you often find there are different ways to do things; there are better ways to do things. I’m not as good as I thought I was, but I have something to work on.
One might say that competence is dynamic while incompetence is static. Those who know what they know and know what they don’t know feel that they are competent to learn more. Those who do not know what they do not know lack confidence in their ability to learn anything at all.
They might well consider themselves and their views to be of equal value to everyone else’s. Isn’t that what democracy is all about? Thus they will become opinionated fools, unwilling and unable to acquire any knowledge or competence.
Psychologists over the past 50 years have demonstrated the sheer genius people have at convincing themselves of congenial conclusions while denying the truth of inconvenient ones. You can call it self-deception, but it also goes by the names rationalization, wishful thinking, defensive processing, self-delusion, and motivated reasoning. There is a robust catalogue of strategies people follow to believe what they want to, and we research psychologists are hardly done describing the shape or the size of that catalogue. All this rationalization can lead people toward false beliefs, or perhaps more commonly, to tenaciously hang on to false beliefs they should really reconsider.
Let’s say that you are a politician and want to persuade a group of people to vote for a different political party. If these people are basically ignorant, it will be very difficult to entice them to change their minds without letting them feel that they have been foolish to vote as they did?
Apparently, it’s easier to continue doing as they did and remaining convinced that they are competent than to accept that they have been fooled, even tricked into voting against their own self-interest.
If you pretend to know more than you do, even about your own self-interest, you will reject anyone who questions or challenges your competence. Better to livean illusion than to accept that you look like a fool.