Are You Competent? (Hint: “Not Really” is a Better Answer than “Yes”)

You may have heard the expression “the problem is, you don’t know what you don’t know” used to describe how unknowns create risk in decisions. (You may also have heard the expression “too bad stupid doesn’t hurt”…but that’s just funny).

In general though, when we hear someone speak “with authority” we assume they know what they are talking about. This assumes that they have developed confidence based on years of study, hard work, and even being wrong enough times to have “learned the hard way.”

But, that is not always a safe assumption. (Are any assumptions ever safe? Never mind, different topic.) Often people who are not that competent over-estimate their own competence. That’s not too surprising. The real surprise is that people who are very competent often under-estimate their competence. As a result, if you listen to people’s own PR, you run the risk of trusting the less-competent individual!

In 1999, Justin Kruger and David Dunning, then both of Cornell University published the results of a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Their “Dunning-Kruger Effect” noted that, with a range of skill areas (from playing chess to driving to reading) the following are typical (emphasis added).

  1. Incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their own level of skill.
  2. Incompetent individuals fail to recognize genuine skill in others.
  3. Incompetent individuals fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy.
  4. If they can be trained to substantially improve their own skill level, these individuals can recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill.

Another psychologist, C.F. Downing determined that this sort of reverse bias applies to intelligence, with more intelligent people believing they are less intelligent than they are and less intelligent people…well, you get it by now. It leads all the way to “depressive realism” which argues that people who are depressed actually have a more accurate view of what is going on!

What does it all mean? It just means that the more you know, the more you know there is more to know. And, that we should avoid using self-assessment when getting an accurate assessment is important.

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