Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Incompetent and Unaware

One of my favourite articles published in social psychology in the last 10 years is Justin Kruger and David Dunning's (1999) "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments," which was published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 1121-1134.  Across four studies, different participants were tested on their sense of humor, logical reasoning, and grammar. They were also asked to indicate what they perceived their abilities in these areas to be, relative to other people. Across the four studies, participants always believed they were better than average--sometimes dubbed in the literature as the "Lake Wobegon" effect, after Garrison Keillor's mythical Minnesota town, where all the children are "above average."  The problem, of course, is that everyone can't be above average.  In fact, half of the people are in the bottom 50% of scores on whatever ability we're talking about!  Thus, it turns out that the people who are most incompetent on a task are also the people who are most unaware of how incompetent they are.  You can see this pattern in one of the figures that appears in the Kruger and Dunning article:

In the years since this article was published, I'll admit that I have been prone to make occasional observations about other people whom I believed were unaware of how entirely incompetent they were, whether they were salespeople, clerical staff, students, or even other academics.  Interestingly, and predictably, I never really wondered about myself with respect to this article.  That is, as an academic (for example), I like to think of myself in the 3rd or Top Quartile in terms of teaching ability, creativity, writing ability, logical reasoning, etc.  But, of course, on any or all of these dimensions I am likely inflating my own competence.  In my defense, I should point out that in my occupation there are few objective measures of these talents. Regardless, the past month at work has been very challenging for me--which has caused me to re-evaluate my general competence as an academic.  On top of that, yesterday one of my manuscripts, which had been under review since December, was flat out rejected from one of the most prestigious journals in my field.  The reviewers' comments were somewhat harsh, such as, "one wonders what the point of this study is," and "who would want to read this article?"  I can't help (today) feeling a bit like I'm "unskilled and unaware of it."  To keep touch with reality, perhaps I should post the following amended figure above my desk:


Anonymous said...

A very interesting question and for the good of one´s soul it never does us any harm to question our ability. However´it always helps me to question myself from a positive standpoint. Meaning, to question one´s ability with a view to improving one´s output. Not with a view to doubting ability the first place. Someone I admire enormously told me that it´s not about being the brightest or the best but about being the most tenacious. If you believe you have something to say (as you clearly do) then by all means re write the paper, scrutinize and amend but don´t doubt your original premise. Hang in there from your Brother in law

bfbranco said...

Hmmm. Interesting questions everywhere. In the Kruger and Dunning paper, are people comparing themselves to others in their peer group (i.e. plumbers vs. plumbers, accountants vs. accountants, etc.)? Or are the comparisons across the entire population of the U.S.? or of the world? Maybe you should just send me a pdf of the paper (please?).

As for the journal rejection...who funded this study? If it was funded, someone must have thought the subject matter was important (the proposal reviewers, the funding agency). What's the rejection rate for the journal? Upon self-reflection, do you think the reviewers of the manuscript had valid points? Or were they being unreasonable? These questions are all designed to make you feel better about the rejection (perhaps after a few shots of tequila).

As a third year graduate student, our group had a paper rejected outright. One of the reviewer's stated pet peeves was researchers who attempted to rediscover things that we've already known for decades. OUCH. He/she had some valid points. Though he/she was being a jacka** with his comments.


Mooselet said...

Ouch - that stings.

I think having an inflated sense of ourselves must be a way keeping our egos afloat in the sea of humanity. If we all thought the opposite, that we all thought less of our abilities on a regular basis then the world would be a very depressing and stagnant place. Have you ever spent time with someone with a very low sense of self, who continually brands themselves "stupid", for example? Picture the world like that.

There is nothing wrong with honest assessment, and the occasional kick in the backside to remind us we are not where we'd like to be - your rejection is a good, if painful, example - keeps us motivated without keeping us joyless.

Dobbs said...

Sorry to hear about the rejected article. I have always looked at criticism as way to keep me motivated. If people are never criticized then it is harder for them to get better.

However criticism should be constructive and the comments you mentioned are not constructive. It seems like the people reviewing articles for the magazines may have overinflated egos themselves.

Audra said...

Damn, everytime I think I have an original thought, I come to find out it has been debated for decades.

Some time ago, based on personal observation, I formed the theory that the best bench scientists believe themselves to be incompetent, while those that are brimming with assurance and confidence are usually the worst. Self-doubt aids scientific investigation because it fuels greater scrutiny, whereas over-confidence breeds a stubborn inability to consider that one might be wrong. This theory has proved to be most valuable when assessing job candidates.

And here I find it has been scientifically tested!

As far as the reasons for this phenomenon - Mooselet gracefully verbalized my own sentiments. Having always tested into a high percentile by nearly all statistical measures, I can assure you that I nonetheless question my ability daily - in fact, just this morning I woke up and wondered if I would EVER feel like I knew what I was doing in life...and now I know that all those idiots who really don't have a clue are walking around feeling better than me!!

The Prof said...

Thanks for the feedback, all of you! Rest assured that those damning criticisms of my work haven't pushed me into total despair. The nice thing about being incompetent in academia is that we can't really harm or kill someone with our incompetence. There are plenty of other professions, however, where such incompetence is dangerous (e.g., air traffic controllers, surgeons, American presidents). I will resume my own blissful lack of awareness in no time, I'm sure.

Audra said...

I was further discussing this topic over beers with a colleague of mine...if you are looking for a new research project, you might expand upon this work to include how co-workers and partners perceive other people's abilities...and in addition to math and grammar, you could look at perceived driving skill!

Maybe you could stumble upon useful information that could save a few marriages...

Anonymous said...

I am getting a lot of job rejections at the moment so if you are in your own "Salon des Refuses" Eric, that makes me feel better.

Self-doubt is a torment and I suspect it visits the more rather than the less competent, which makes it even more brutal.

The politicians I have known have been singularly unaffected by self-doubt. Thus, they reap the fruits of this world but are often heinous people.

So are we, who labor under self-doubt, "better people" or just martyrs or neurotics?