Wiki-idiotI don’t read many psychology research papers – maybe it is some sort of bias of natural scientists like me have against social scientists. But the classic paper by Dunning and Kruger, Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessment, is just great.

Maybe it is just me being mean but the title really appeals to me. The first sentence of the abstract is just as good: “People tend to hold overly favourable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains”. If you have never thought this, then you are a very sweet/naive person, and/or don’t get out much. Either way you probably should stop reading this post now. I have thought it. More than once.

Anyway, if you are still reading … The original paper is very readable – it starts by illustrating the problem with the (true) story of the man who robbed a bank after smearing his face with lemon juice. He had been told, and believed, that this would prevent CCTV cameras being able to see him.

The paper then presents their data. Basically what Dunning and Kruger did was take a task, like spotting mistakes in grammar, where it is easy to objectively assess performance. They then got around 80 people to do a test, and ranked their test results. They also asked these people to both assess their own performance, and to assess the performance of others.

Point is that those who scored in the top 25% were not only able to do well in the test, they were also able to assess reasonably well both their own performance and that of others. However, those in the bottom 25% were not only poor at the test, they were also very bad at assessing their own performance, and that of others. In particular, they greatly overestimated their own performance. They thought they were average or above average, not well below average, as they really were.

This effect, basically that of people who are rubbish at something not realising this and thinking they are at least average at it, is now even named the Dunning-Kruger effect in honour of these two psychologists. If you want you to amuse yourself, you can think which politicians may suffer from it. I am not going to tell you which politician particularly makes me think of this, and kind of inspired this post, but there is one.

Perhaps a slightly more constructive way to view this that you should find something that you objectively at least average at, and do that, as if you end up doing something badly there is a double problem. You will be doing something badly and may not even know it.

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