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Confident You Are Competent? Think Again

New York Times Syndicate
January 20, 2000

      For me, this week's most fascinating story was deep inside Tuesday's New York Times, a piece by Erica Goode headlined, ``Among the Inept, Researchers Discover Ignorance Is Bliss.''

      It seems that studies by psychologists have found that most incompetent people have no idea they're incompetent.

      On the contrary, the researchers found that the incompetent are ``usually supremely confident of their abilities, more confident, in fact, than people who do things well.''

      This could explain a lot. Professional sports. Certain aspects of politics. The way some people drive. The mystery of how certain clueless individuals manage to thrive at work. A great deal of what passes for popular entertainment. That obnoxious guy who'll never take ``no'' for an answer.

      But it also raises questions. If you are confident about your abilities, how do you know you're not fooling yourself?

      (Maybe a person who is confident but incompetent wouldn't even ask that question.)

      And if you're not confident, does it necessarily follow that you're more competent than you think you are?

      (Maybe. The researchers believe that their findings support Thomas Jefferson's belief that ``he who knows best knows how little he knows.'')

      Dr. David A. Dunning of Cornell University and his former graduate assisant, Dr. Justin Kruger, now of the University of Illinois, published their report in the December issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Goode notes that, given the subject matter, the two were a little nervous about presenting their research to the public. They didn't want to seem too confident.

      The two psychologists think that inept people are often self-assured because they lack self-monitoring skills, which are the same skills required for competence. Subjects who scored in the lowest quartile in tests of logic, English grammar, and humor were also the mostly likely to ``grossly overestimate'' how well they performed.

      ``Not only do (incompetent people) reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices,'' wrote Dr. Kruger, ``but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.''

      The inept, then, are in an impossible position. Is there any hope for them? Or don't they care?

      Dunning and Kruger found that a short course in logical reasoning helped some of the subjects assess their performance more realistically. But it appears a lot more work must be done. Stamping out incompetence, especially among people who won't admit they're incompetent, could be a Herculean task. One of the obstacles to encouraging realistic self-assessment is that, in most situations, honest feedback is nonexistent. As Goode puts it, ``Social norms prevent most people from blurting out, `You stink!''

      It makes me grateful to be a newspaper columnist, the kind of job in which you get that sort of honest feedback on a regular basis. Of course it doesn't sink in, in every case. Years ago I worked with a person who was astonishingly inept. This wasn't just my opinion. It was widely shared. He was also extremely self-confident, something of a blowhard. There was a long-running office debate about whether he knew, in his heart of hearts, that he was a loser. In one camp were those who maintained that he knew, that when his defenses were down, in quiet moments of reflection, he had to know what an incompent jerk he was.

      Others argued that he couldn't possibly know, that if he had the gift of being able to see himself as others saw him (thank you, Robert Burns) he wouldn't be the way he was. Science seems to have settled that debate for us at last. Although who knows? You can't be too certain of anything.

      (Diane White is a Boston Globe columnist.)

c.2000 The Boston Globe

This news story is not produced by the American Psychological Association and does not necessarily represent the opinions of the association.