When Incompetence and Over-Confidence Co-Exist!

wandering-mindConsidering that each of us has just an infinitesimally small fraction of knowledge when compared to all there is to know, it’s a wonder that anyone believes they are expert at anything. And for most intelligent people, the daunting reality of how much remains unknown keeps us humble and striving to learn more. But there is a well-known phenomenon we have all witnessed, in which the least knowledgeable or competent among us believe they are the very best.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect, named for the scientists who first documented it, has been demonstrated in a variety of settings. The classic case is the student who, when asked how he did on an exam, believes he performed in the 70th percentile (meaning he out-performed most of his peers) despite have actually performed in the 30th percentile.  Overconfident, under-performers truly believe that they are the “smartest people in the room”, even when they are, in fact, the least smart. When social scientists try to understand why there is such a substantial gap between the confidence level and the actual performance they hypothesize something interesting. The same lack of skill that begets the poor performance is also being applied to assessing how they stack up against others. So, in stark and unflattering terms, you could say that if you are stupid about (say) the material on the test, you are also stupid about how stupid you are. You bring your stupid-ness to bear on all tasks, including self-evaluation.

In contrast, those that perform well on the same tests in the experiments, usually under-estimate their own performance. On the one hand, you could chalk this up to modesty. But when you dig deeper you find something else. The accomplished students believe that their peers are just as studious and intelligent as they themselves are, and so expect the others in the class to do well. Because they assume a high level of common ability, they underestimate how they compare. That’s why you rarely meet anyone who is both an expert in a field and who describes himself as such. Experts usually get called experts by others, not themselves.

This phenomenon is interesting for a lot of reasons. On the one hand, it appeals to our very human, malicious desire to have a label for those around us who we believe are stupid or incompetent – and lacking in self-awareness. None of us are above that form of self-indulgent wallowing in a belief in our own superiority. While I am not innocent of doing that, I have found a different value in learning about the the Dunning-Kruger Effect — as well as a danger it presents to having an appropriate level of self-confidence.  On the danger side, it’s easy to see that if we committed to growth and development in our leadership skills or even just in our lives, we are bound to wonder if we are also exhibiting the effect. That’s the irony of the Dunning-Kruger effect: Once you understand it, it’s incredibly difficult not to wonder if you yourself are guilty of the same self-delusion. The fear can be crippling and make us doubt everything.

The reality is that we will always be far less knowledgeable or expert on any subject than we want to be.  But that isn’t the same as being the person feeling certain and knowledgeable despite being wrong and ignorant. For me, this concern arises all the time; whether I am delivering a keynote address, training a group or writing a blog. Every instant that doesn’t go perfectly can make me wonder whether I am incompetent, under-prepared, inarticulate or even offensive.  If a member of a training group checks their cell phone while I am presenting something I imagine I have lost the group’s attention. If fewer people click on a link than I hoped, I wonder if my post is boring. But being guided by fear doesn’t really resolve anything, it just drains confidence and causes trepidation. So how do you check to determine if you are the self-delusional one when you are in doubt? Here are some tips.

  • Use objective tools of measurement. When we want to find out how far afield we are in (say) our creative performance or thinking in the workplace, the best place to look initially is at whatever measurement tools we have. For a sense of your own correctness about (say) a business idea, look at objective sources of information: financial statements, research data, previous results of similar concepts; the analysis of experts.  For ideas, publications or other creative pursuits, look at sales and circulation, Google rankings, hits, social media shares and so forth. But don’t stop there. Those indicators can be low for reasons unrelated to your skill, like that your SEO is not set-up correctly.
  • Use subjective tools of measurement. Whether a business concept, the quality of a presentation or the uniqueness of creative work, consider how your peers, readers, followers or detractors react. Gathering information from both your supportive colleagues and those who are less personally connected to you can give a balanced view of how well-embraced your ideas are. Asking people to review your writing, or give you feedback on business concepts (especially those who are respected by the field at large) can give you a sense of their quality.
  • Take criticism seriously, but not personally. If someone offers you constructive criticism, it is instinctive to feel defensive. But allowing that instinct to stop you from exploring what you hear can keep you inside a faulty belief system. So seriously consider the merits of constructive criticism. If someone says you are wrong about a fact, check it. If they tell you that your presentation is dull, or needs pictures, graphs or more humor, ask around. Despite how uncomfortable it is to hear negative feedback, it is often our only source of instruction to improve.

For most of us, we are probably not exhibiting signs of Dunning-Kruger on a regular basis. But that doesn’t mean we are right, or that we are as good as we can be. There will always be more that we don’t know than that we do. That’s as it should be. The goal is to increase how much of the unknown we discover, and to stay vigilant about the fact that we cannot know what we don’t know that we don’t know. That’s the area where we can all stand to learn far more.


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