Or, in other words, ignorance is truly bliss when it comes to evaluating your own abilities. It explains so many things. Things such as the apparent surprise contestants on American Idol seem to express when they’re told they suck harder than a Hoover when it comes to singing. Or the fact that so many people find it so easy to deny the evidence of global climate change.
This is something many of us have long ago picked up on just by paying attention to the clueless people around us, but now it’s being backed up with science:
With more than a decade’s worth of research, David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell University, has demonstrated that humans find it “intrinsically difficult to get a sense of what we don’t know.” Whether an individual lacks competence in logical reasoning, emotional intelligence, humor or even chess abilities, the person still tends to rate his or her skills in that area as being above average.
Dunning and his colleague, Justin Kruger, formerly of Cornell and now at New York University, “have done a number of studies where we will give people a test of some area of knowledge like logical reasoning, knowledge about STDs and how to avoid them, emotional intelligence, etcetera. Then we determine their scores, and basically just ask them how well they think they’ve done,” Dunning said. “We ask, ‘what percentile will your performance fall in?'”
The results are uniform across all the knowledge domains: People who actually did well on the test tend to feel more confident about their performance than people who didn’t do well, but only slightly. Almost everyone thinks they did better than average. “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 told 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.”
I’d hazard a guess that part of this stems from the brain’s natural tendency to lie to itself to protect its ego, but apparently that’s not the only thing at work here:
It’s not merely optimism, but rather that their total lack of expertise renders them unable to recognize their deficiency. Even when Dunning and his colleagues offer study participants a $100 reward if they can rate themselves accurately, they cannot. “They’re really trying to be honest and impartial,” he said.
If only we knew ourselves better. Dunning believes people’s inability to assess their own knowledge is the cause of many of society’s ills, including climate change denialism. “Many people don’t have training in science, and so they may very well misunderstand the science. But because they don’t have the knowledge to evaluate it, they don’t realize how off their evaluations might be,” he said.
I try very hard to remind myself of just how much I don’t know about most things even though I know a little bit about a lot of things and a whole lot about a select few things. I also try very hard to study up on issues I don’t know too much about before forming solid opinions about them. Most folks don’t seem to do that and that’s where they, and by extension the rest of us, start getting into trouble:
Along the same lines, 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.
They say that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but really it’s the lack of knowledge that’s truly imperiling.