Friday, July 2, 2010

How Do You Know When You Are Getting It Wrong?

Perhaps you've seen Errol Morris' fascinating five part series on the bizarre neurological phenomenon called anosognosia. Links here, here, here, here, and here.

Given my limited knowledge of neurology, I will not venture to explain anosognosia, except to say that it refers to a set of patients who, for example, are partially paralyzed but who do not know that they are partially paralyzed. They are convinced that their paralyzed limb is perfectly functional and that they can move it and control it.

More interesting from my perspective are the speculations that this condition elicited in social psychologist Daniel Dunning. Most of us are competent at some tasks and less competent at others. But what happens, Dunning surmised, when you are not sufficiently competent to recognize that you are incompetent at one thing or the other. Thus, it is possible to be incompetent at a task and not to know it. Evidence to the contrary is piling up, but such people continue to believe that they are perfectly competent.

There are people who believe that they are congenial and charming even though they do not have any friends. And there are people who can't hold a job, but who feel that they are doing everything right.

Are we talking about someone who is so delusional that he has no sense of reality? Or are we talking about a narcissist who is so in love with his own self-image that he cannot even see anything that might cast doubt on it?

Those are the easy cases. What if you have devoted your life to your art, and have spent decades working on it, with very little to show for it. At what point do you have so much invested in your art that you simply cannot accept that you do not have the talent to be an artist?

A woman goes out and buys herself an expensive new wardrobe. She is proud of her purchases and loves the way she looks in her new clothes. And then, she goes out wearing one of the new dresses and people react strangely; they do not offer compliments; they seem to believe that she looks bizarre, as though the clothing does not suit her.

Will she read these cues and decide that she needs to replace her entire wardrobe, and thus take a sizable loss to her wallet and her self-judgement, or will she convince herself that these other people are blind or malicious?

Let's say that she is not competent to dress herself, but that she does not know that she is incompetent. I would imagine that this is not the first time that someone told her that her sense of what looked good on her was sorely defective.

Once we adopt a strategy, whether it is a career strategy or a fashion strategy, and invest time, energy, and money in it, we start having a vested interest in not seeing the signs that are telling us that it is not working out. We are just as likely to soldier on, assuming that we just need to work harder or that we need to give it more time.

Let's imagine that there is a mental muscle, or a synapse, or whatever, that alerts us when we are making a mistake.The sooner it tells us, the better. The more we are capable of heeding it, the better.

This muscle tells us what we are good at and what we are bad at. It tells us when we are getting it right and when we are getting it wrong. And it also works in conjunction with another muscle that propels us to make mid-course corrections, the better to capitalize on our strengths and to overcome our weaknesses.

How do you find out whether you are good or bad at something? How do you know whether you have gotten it right or wrong?

It may be too obvious, but you will never know whether you are good or bad, right or wrong, if you do not try it. Introspection and other forms of navel-gazing will never tell you whether you are competent at a task or at managing your life.

The only way to discover you are good at golf is to play golf. The only way to discover whether you have any talent trading pork belly futures is just to do it.

Some activities offer more unambiguous verdicts than others. Any activity that involves fair competition will tell you how good you are. Sports are a great example: the golf course is an unusually frank and sometimes brutal judge of your athletic ability. One might say the same about the trading pits or the bridge table.

Is the ability to judge your own competence a skill that you can learn? Is it a muscle that can be strengthened? And is it perhaps a muscle that will weaken when it is not used?

Many people learn this skill through sports. Competitive sports are about more than exercise and recreation. They build character because they teach us how to recognize when we are good at something and when we are not.

Assuming that you have worked on your game to the point where you have eliminated the possibility that you are too lazy or too distracted or too inexperienced, the game will tell you whether or not you are pursuing an activity in which you are competent.

Assuming, of course, that you are sufficiently competent to recognize when you are incompetent.

Sports count among those activities that are prized because they render a reasonably fair verdict on our competence.

Thus, seeing life as a game is far more satisfying and more productive because it helps us to think in terms of discovering and developing areas of competence. In a game there are right and wrong. Games help us to learn strategy, to recognize strengths and weaknesses, and to proceed more productively.

Seeing life as a game is more productive and more constructive than seeing it as a drama that will play itself out according to a script and whose bad outcome is presumed to be valuable if it tells a compelling story. If therapy wants to make life into a drama, does it inadvertently deprive people of some of their ability to judge their own incompetence.

If you want to know whether you are getting it right, introspection and soul-searching are especially useless exercises. The key, as Dunning wrote, is other people: "The road to self-insight 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."

Let's try to make this a little more complicated. Other people is the right place to look, but they are far from infallible. What if a group of people conspire to tell you that you are better or worse than you are?

If a group of women believes that one of them lacks confidence in her appearance, they might decide to tell her, as often as possible, that she is beautiful.

Will she thereby come to appreciate how beautiful she is? Perhaps. But what if she is interested in attracting men, and she continues to see that men are still not noticing?

She might decide that her girlfriends are patronizing her or lying to her, just to make her feel better. Or she might conclude that her girlfriends are right and that the men who pass her by with nary a glance in her direction are blind, depraved, or otherwise deficient.

Take a different scenario. What if the woman in question is very beautiful. Imagine that her girlfriends are jealous of her and that they do not feel that they can compete with her. So they decide to bring her down a notch, by constantly finding fault with her appearance. No matter what she wears they find that she is not very well put together.

The motive is clear: these women want to reduce the competitive threat that this woman poses. By undermining her confidence her friends are trying to gain an advantage over her.

If they are sufficiently persuasive or persistent, the beautiful woman might begin to doubt the evidence provided by the way men look at her. And she might well modify her appearance to look worse, or become less charming and outgoing, and so on.

Take another analogous example. We like to think that schools provide a way for children to learn how to compete for grades and thus how to form a correct estimate of what they are good at. We like to think that schools provide an objective measure of your aptitude and achievement ... through tests, but also through feedback from teachers.

But what if the school abolishes grades? What if it abolishes all forms of student competition? What if it decides to tell all the students that they are all brilliant and wonderful and supremely competent at any task they should want to undertake.

Clearly, the school will have been rendering them a serious disservice. It will not be teaching them how to make objective judgments about when they are getting it right and when they are getting it wrong, when they are competent and when they are not.

In point of fact, if the school undermines their ability to make an objective self-assessment it is consigning them to a life of diminished achievements. If they keep working on projects where they have no competence, they are, by definition, engaging in an economically inefficient investment of their resources.

But they will also be cursed with an inflated sense of self-worth, a colossal arrogance that they simply do not know how to correct. If they have come to believe that they are as good as they feel they are, they will ignore all of the signs that say otherwise.

It's one thing not to have the skills. It's another thing not to know you don't have the skills. It's quite another to refuse to recognize you don't have the skills when the truth hits you in the face.


Robert Pearson said...

If I might play "Devil's advocate" for a moment--you mention artists, but they and also inventors, writers and actors often suffer through long periods at the beginning of their careers when other people tell them they will never "make it." They press on regardless, and a few later become World-Historical figures.

Of course. most of them actually don't make it. So I don't know how much of a contra this is, except to note that Gone With the Wind was rejected 38 times. She could have stopped submitting it after the 30th and never would we have heard of it...

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Of course, that's the problem... how many of those who tell us that they need but keep at it will eventually succeed?

And how many people have launched fruitless quests because they know of one example of someone who stuck with it for thirty years and then hit the jackpot.

I do not have a very good answer to this. I like to imagine that someone who is going to succeed in a big way will have enjoyed a series of smaller success along the way.

Still... some occupations-- like artist-- reward very, very few people.

I recall an old story about a professor at an art school who asks his class how many of them think that they are going to be successful artists.

Most of them raise their hands.

He proceeds to tell them that if one of their number actually makes it, that will be a lot.

Some professions are set up to reward only very few people. Other professions offer much better opportunities to far more people.

I don't have a really good formula for this, though I hear about it often enough.

When it comes to writers, even if the publishing world does not like a book, the writer must be able to say that someone, somewhere has thought the world of it. And, hopefully, that someone will not have been a family member or a friend.