March 1, 2012
You can file this one under the “stuff I sort of knew” category, unless, of course, you didn't know it, in which case — statistically speaking — you will likely pretend you did.Confused? Join the sizable club.It seems an increasing number of psychological researchers are finding truth in a theory that people who are incompetent in an area are often unaware of it, a result of the incompetence itself. In simpler terms, stupid people have a habit of being too stupid to recognize their own stupidity.That might sound like the sort of truism that comes up during a gin-fueled bar debate, but it was actually posited officially by David Dunning and Justin Kruger clear back in 1999. The two psychologist, who worked first at Cornell University and later, New York University, have done more than a decade of research and performed a multitude of studies on the issue and what they have discovered is that most of us find it “intrinsically difficult to get a sense of what we don't know.” Their finding is actually called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.The finding is based on a relatively simple test. Subjects were given a test in some area of knowledge, ranging from logical reasoning and emotional intelligence to STDs and how to avoid them. They score the tests, then ask the subjects how they think they will perform. Uniformly, they overrate their abilities, and to a considerable degree. Not surprisingly, almost everybody thinks they are above average, even in areas in which they have no training or history.“For people at the bottom who are really doing badly — those in the bottom 10th or 15th percentile — they think their work falls in the 60th or 55th percentile, so, above average,” Dunning said in an interview for the brilliant website Life's Little Mysteries.The same pattern emerges in tests of people's ability to rate the funniness of jokes, the correctness of grammar, or even their own performance in a game of chess. “People at the bottom still think they're outperforming other people,” Dunning said.Even when offered a $100 reward for rating themselves accurately, participants failed, proving that it is not just ego or a desire to impress the testers, but ignorance itself that left them unable to identify their own deficiencies. Now, you are probably asking what this has to do with you. You are, after all, not one of those people too stupid to recognize your own. Then again, maybe you are and you're too stupid to know it.The glory of the Dunning-Kruger finding is how much it clarifies some of the lunacy we see around us. Not only does it explain the absurd confidence of those tone-deaf singers we see in the first rounds of American Idol, or the guy at the Sertoma Club meetings who insists he is funny despite all evidence to the contrary, it also gives us a window into the equally absurd confidence of some of our leaders in the business and political arena.We all know or have seen the guy who insists he would make an absolutely fantastic CEO or mayor, despite the absolute absence of any education, experience or even a hint of the sort of intelligence and consistency it takes to do a job like that well. In the past, we have blamed it on pomposity or ego, but now we know the truth: He's actually too stupid to know he's too stupid for the job.That's kind of funny, until we realize that stupid fellow sometimes gets the job in spite of his weaknesses. That's because the people who make the decisions may also be unaware that they are also too stupid to make smart choices. As Dunning explains, people who aren't talented in a given area tend not to be able to recognize the talents or good ideas of others, from co-workers to politicians. This may impede the democratic process, which relies on citizens having the capacity to identify and support the best candidate or policy.In other words, we may be too stupid to realize the people we're putting in charge are too stupid to do the job. And if that much stupid piled on itself doesn't explain our current state of affair, well I'm just not getting it.Which is possible. Apparently I, like so many of you, am not as smart as I think.