Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence

Among the Inept, Researchers Discover, Ignorance Is Bliss

– most incompetent people do not know that they are incompetent.

– One reason that the ignorant also tend to be the blissfully self-assured, the researchers believe, is that the skills required for competence often are the same skills necessary to recognize competence.

– the lowest-ranked participants showed much greater distortions in their self-estimates

Self-selecting bias (of circumstance). To see and feel oneself and the world in this way, through the lens of incompetence, must be pleasant at times, and at other times frustrating or exasperating. As we are to some degree able to select the situations we find ourselves in, consciously and not, we may be able to sustain a desirable amount of pleasant experiences. To seek to better ourselves in some way, though ultimately we may be seeking to experience things more pleasantly or easily, is to approach the potentially unpleasant experiences in learning, training, etc.

The person who knows that he doesn’t know. The researchers and my own mind seem to overlook the possible existence of a person who is incompetent and knows that he is incompetent. This betrays a certain bias, or blind spot. As for my own mind, the questions start popping up: “Why would you ever stay that way? Why wouldn’t you do something about it, the instant you realized it?” On second thought, that could be a devastating and hopeless state to be in: to know that you cannot and not know how to change, possibly not even knowing how deep a hole you are in. From there, it would be reasonably human to avoid this fact, and somehow obscure it from your own awareness.

“Incompetent individuals were less able to recognize competence in others,” the researchers concluded.

– In some cases, Dr. Dunning pointed out, an awareness of one’s own inability is inevitable: “In a golf game, when your ball is heading into the woods, you know you’re incompetent,” he said. But in other situations, feedback is absent, or at least more ambiguous

– Even when the dunces were shown how their more competent classmates had answered their exams, they didn’t become aware of their own mistakes. In fact the opposite occurred; they actually increased the estimate of their own marks. Those who failed the task seemed to be completely oblivious to what a good result looks like. Context didn’t make them more aware of their stupidity, it acted to reinforce their delusions.

How to relate to others. Leadership and individual social and emotional intelligence become relevant here. Perhaps “spiritual” and “moral” aspects also, considering that these influence people as to what attitudes to take, how to relate to the world and oneself, to be rejecting or accepting, punishing or compassionate, condescending or sympathetic.

In fact, a short training session in logical reasoning did improve the ability of low-scoring subjects to assess their performance realistically, they found

– The rather odd element of the Dunning-Kruger effect is that the incompetent don’t become aware of it until they become more competent.

– The key is education.

Motive. For one to begin the work to develop oneself, one needs some inclination to do it. Being educated, trained – these are usually things we’re made to do – nevertheless the potential for benefit is there. So there’s the extrinsic motive. Sometimes one seeks out (intrinsically) an extrinsic motivation or aid, such as a coach, tutor, rivals, teammates, or teacher. But that starting stage, the stage of being incompetent or a novice, that’s exactly the stage when one doesn’t have a clear idea of competence vs incompetence. Not just idea, be even the experience of it, of realizing that you don’t know.

Getting started. The experience becomes salient when the person begins the work and begins to experience the difficulties and struggles of being incompetent – it is not fun or pleasant, and initially it may be quite alien, disorienting, and aversive. The sense of fun and pleasure in that starting stage is from the point of view, that particular sensibility, of that starting stage person. Ideally, the person develops the capacity to accept the experience of difficulty and struggle – maybe they’ll better accept even the experience of no fun and no pleasure, but ideally learn to drop or separate the struggle from the unpleasantness of the struggle. That is, the person’s sensibility changes.

From there, they experience some kind of reward: maybe of successes or maybe that of vigorously working on one’s struggles. But that initial stage of developing a new, different relationship with the experience of feeling and knowing that one is incompetent, that’s the gateway one must pass through, from beginning to end. Not only must the person be open to the very abstract possibility that they might become more competent, but they must then go into and through the experience of truly getting to know themselves as incompetent.

Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments

when people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it

Psychological defense – reducing cognitive dissonance. In some cases the results (i.e., unsuccessful attempts) are clearly evident. There may be some wiggle room for the person to unwittingly employ selective attention: they may interpret their failure as anomalous or not that big of a deal, they may ‘see’ others’ successes as anomalous or not that big of a deal, they may start referring to other criteria for success and failure, etc. That is, they may skew what they see and attend to to fit their interpretations. This applies to “moral skill” and knowing “what’s right”.

the incompetent will tend to grossly overestimate their skills and abilities.

Prediction 2. Incompetent individuals will suffer from deficient metacognitive skills, in that they will be less able than their more competent peers to recognize competence when they see it—be it their own or anyone else’s.

I reckon they will also mis-apprehend what expected results are i.e., they will expect “usual” results to be something lower, rougher, poorer, etc. than par – their own results or others’. Of course, as the study presents, they also estimate inflated scores for themselves, also.

Prediction 3. Incompetent individuals will be less able than their more competent peers to gain insight into their true level of performance by means of social comparison information. In particular, because of their difficulty recognizing competence in others, incompetent individuals will be unable to use information about the choices and performances of others to form more accurate impressions of their own ability.

Group norms/culture. This was one thing my first teacher, intentionally or intuitively or not, helped to address. He had us observe more advanced students. In doing so, he implicitly identified them as more competent and gave us the task of trying to recognize their higher competence. However, because this was somewhat implicit, if one of us was already thinking that we were the same as those more competent and advanced students, then our observational eyes would have been turned off in advance. The more constructive way of seeing would be to strive to see, “What am I not seeing?”, “Of what I am seeing, am I myself doing it that way?”, etc.

Prediction 4. The incompetent can gain insight about their shortcomings, but this comes (paradoxically) by making them more competent, thus providing them the metacognitive skills necessary to be able to realize that they have performed poorly.

Without a sufficient norm of the group members exhibiting high or improving competence, an individual group member will have less chance of being exposed to good self- and other- assessment skills. The role of the leader or teacher can be confounded by students or group members who are not inclined to improve their competence, already presuming their competence to be sufficiently high. It falls to a member of the group leading or driving high or improving competence to change the group norms.

– One puzzling aspect of our results is how the incompetent fail, through life experience, to learn that they are unskilled. This is not a new puzzle. Sullivan, in 1953, marveled at “the failure of learning which has left their capacity for fantastic, self-centered delusions so utterly unaffected by a life-long history of educative events” (p. 80).

– So why had they not learned?
– One reason is that people seldom receive negative feedback about their skills and abilities from others in everyday life. Even young children are familiar with the notion that “if you do not have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Second, the bungled robbery attempt of McArthur Wheeler not withstanding, some tasks and settings preclude people from receiving self-correcting information that would reveal the suboptimal nature of their decisions (Einhorn, 1982). Third, even if people receive negative feedback, they still must come to an accurate understanding of why that failure has occurred.
The problem with failure is that it is subject to more attributional ambiguity than success. For success to occur, many things must go right: The person must be skilled, apply effort, and perhaps be a bit lucky. For failure to occur, the lack of any one of these components is sufficient. Because of this, even if people receive feedback that points to a lack of skill, they may attribute it to some other factor.

As stated above, feedback is important. Consequently, a group norm of giving and receiving feedback meaningfully is crucial. “Meaningfully” includes helping each other come to an understanding of why this or that outcome occurred.

– Finally, Study 3 showed that incompetent individuals may be unable to take full advantage of one particular kind of feedback: social comparison. One of the ways people gain insight into their own competence is by watching the behavior of others. In a perfect world, everyone could see the judgments and decisions that other people reach, accurately assess how competent those decisions are, and then revise their view of their own competence by comparison. However, Study 3 showed that incompetent individuals are unable to take full advantage of such opportunities. Compared with their more expert peers, they were less able to spot competence when they saw it, and as a consequence, were less able to learn that their ability estimates were incorrect.

– When can the incompetent be expected to overestimate themselves because of their lack of skill? Although our data do not speak to this issue directly, we believe the answer depends on the domain under consideration. Some domains, like those examined in this article, are those in which knowledge about the domain confers competence in the domain. In other domains, however, competence is not wholly dependent on knowledge or wisdom, but depends on other factors, such as physical skill.

The difference between being an armchair quarterback, knowing and seeing everything supposedly, and being a coach, which would additionally require the ability to read and interact with the individuals on the team, intuiting the flow of events, having a sense of the energy of the other team.

– Finally, in order for the incompetent to overestimate themselves, they must satisfy a minimal threshold of knowledge, theory, or experience that suggests to themselves that they can generate correct answers. In some domains, there are clear and unavoidable reality constraints that prohibits this notion. For example, most people have no trouble identifying their inability to translate Slovenian proverbs, reconstruct an 8-cylinder engine, or diagnose acute disseminated encephalomyelitis.

The danger of encouragement, and giving people the impression that they know enough? (Vs the impression that they’re on the right track to start the real work?) Being able to give good and meaningful feedback should then include having a sense of how the other person is making sense of the feedback, generating interpretations, etc. Social intelligence.

Finally, something subtle: when the incompetent person improves, they may improve in the execution of a skill but not necessarily equally in the assessment of the execution. They may swing the club better, holding their arm the way that they’ve been told, but they can’t feel for themselves whether it’s better or worse, more or less comfortable, etc. If the outcome is directly correlated (eg their using their arms right always makes the ball go straight), then the person can rely on an external indication as feedback. But in many cases, that one correction is one of many that are needed, so the outcome isn’t so directly correlated. So then your teacher may be telling you you’re doing better, but you can’t see it yet. Again, this is where the social/interpersonal piece is applicable. As a new person or incompetent person, you rely on others to guide you.


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