7 March 2013

Ignorance is bliss for the truly inept

Two American psychologists have discovered that incompetent people have no idea how inept they are.  In a study that will confirm many long-held prejudices, they have found that whereas people who can do things well underrate their abilities the truly incompetent remain in blissful ignorance.

According to David Dunning of Cornell University, and Justin Kruger of the University of Illinois, this makes them suffer twice. 'Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but also their incompetence robs them of the ability to realise it.'  they wrote in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The skills required for competence are the same skills necessary for recognising it, they say, after carrying out tests.

They found that those who scored in the bottom quarter in tests of logic, grammar and humour were also those most likely to have delusions of competence, grossly overestimating their own abilities.

Asked to evaluate how well they had done at the logic test, those who scored in the bottom eighth reckoned that their ability was in the top third.  Those in the bottom tenth in grammar also considered that their ability put them in the top third.

Those who really were in the top third, however, tended to underestimate themselves.  This is because, in the absence of information about how well others do, highly competent people tend to assume that others are just as competent.

When shown other people's work, however, the competent soon revised their opinion but the incompetent did not - some even inflated their self-estimates.  The results, the psychologists say, support the assertion by Thomas Jefferson: 'he who knows best knows how little he knows'.

What, though, if Dunning and Kruger are incompetent and have failed to recognise it?  In the report they acknowledge that possibility.  'This article may contain faulty logic, methodological errors or poor communication,' they write.  'Let us assure our readers that to the extent the article is imperfect, it is not a sin we have committed knowingly.'

From an article by by Nigel Hawkes

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