Incredible or Just Ignorant?

By Noah Graff

Are you skeptical of people who claim to be INCREDIBLE at something?

According to extensive scientific studies, the people who claim to be incredibly talented and intelligent are either genuinely incredible or they are incredibly bad and ignorant about how bad they are.

National Public Radio’s “This American Life” recently did a piece about the research of scientists David Dunning and Justin Kruger. The scientists conducted tests on undergrads at Cornell University in which they gave the students three quizzes. One was on grammar, another on logical reasoning and another on humor—such as asking them which of several jokes was the funniest.

Too dumb to know how dumb you are.

At the end of the quizzes they queried each student how they thought they had performed, asking them to predict which percentile they thought they landed in out of all the test takers.

The results showed that the majority of students who performed the worst, with scores as low as the 11th, 12th, and 13th percentile, thought they had performed in the 60th or 70th percentile. In other words, people who had scored the equivalent of D’s and F’s believed they had scored B’s or B-pluses. The people who had been ignorant about the test’s subject matter were also ignorant about their incompetence; in fact, their ignorance made them overconfident. Meanwhile, most of the students who performed well had more modest expectations than the poor performers. They had not thought they had done poorly, but they figured that the other students knew as much as them.

Dunning and Kruger have performed tests like these repeatedly over the years which yielded similar results. They have tested a variety of groups such as chess players, competitive debaters, even medical professionals, and the results overwhelmingly show that the people who performed poorly were under the impression that they had done well. People today call this phenomenon the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Assuming the Dunning-Kruger Effect is real, the phenomenon has a significant impact in our polite society because many people feel it is taboo for people to call out the incompetence of their peers or coworkers. People are afraid they will look like jerks if they call out someone on the team who they feel is a weak link. They also fear that the behavior will set themselves up as targets for others to criticize. So the ignorance of under-performers is allowed to thrive, and we have to put up with poor performers.

The scary thing is that there can only be a small number of truly elite talented people; thus, the majority of people who say they are great are not only not great, they often downright stink.

If Dunning-Kruger is true, then when we are choosing which applicant to hire, who should give us investment advice, or who should perform heart surgery on us, perhaps it is more sensible to go with someone who claims to be “pretty good” rather than someone who claims to be “the best.”

This is why it is essential to judge people on real data of their past performance, not just on how well they sell themselves.

To me the idea of the Dunning-Kruger Effect is a rather cynical view of the human capacity for self-awareness. I do not see myself as someone who claims to be “incredible” at many things. I am confident in many of my talents, but usually others who I trust have encouraged that confidence with compliments. Usually I just claim to be “pretty good” rather than elite—unless I’m talking about my aesthetic beauty and charm—for those I know I’m fabulous.

I often think that people who are performing a task poorly while claiming to be doing a good job actually know deep down they are performing poorly. But maybe I have been totally wrong all this time. Perhaps I think I understand people and I really don’t understand them and I am too ignorant to know that.

Question 1: If a coworker is constantly performing poorly do you prefer to say nothing to him or her?

Question 2: Does our society not have enough honesty?

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10 thoughts on “Incredible or Just Ignorant?

  1. Tony

    I find it amusing that the caption for the picture in your article reads, “Too dumb to know how dumb you are”.
    For many years I’ve been telling people that I’m just smart enough to know how dumb I am!

    I don’t know which is worse!

    1. Noah Graff

      Thanks for commenting Tony.

      I guess you don’t fall in to the Dunning and Kruger Effect. Unless of course, you just think you are realistic about yourself but in actuality you really aren’t realistic and you are too ignorant to understand that.

      But in my expert opinion you sound rather grounded.

  2. Seth Emerson

    One of the only smart things that Don Rumsfeld said (at least in his tenure under GW Bush), was that: “There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know.” He was actually quoting/paraphrasing from a D.H. Lawrence poem. I believe that there are many people who go through their life in the “unknown unknown” category.

  3. rick

    We are not in a polite society, we are in a fearful society.

    If you are in the union, you don’t say anything, otherwise you get your arm broken and/or your tools “disappear”…

    Unfortunately there is too much “I don’t care” attitude invading our society. Perhaps the ongoing war on the Christian religion, a key foundation of our country, where now the mere mention of “God” could offend someone, God forbid someone prays in a group in public. And a cross or creche in the public square could bring about the end of the world!

    Up until now most were scared of Political Correctness and the guilting of everyone to self censor themselves of their thoughts and opinions. We now need “safe spaces” on college campuses for our delicate and tender youth.
    [They can’t handle the TRUTH]

    Now it is real nice to see the Trump Train rolling and saying what so many thought and feel, but were afraid to speak up!

    OBTW, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews was perving on our future first lady on a hot mike.
    “Did you see her walk? Runway walk. My God is that good,” Matthews could be heard saying as the Republican frontrunner’s wife walked onto the stage. “I could watch that runway show,”
    I do not think he would have said that about the current first lady or the former Secretary of State.
    I ask will there be enough honesty to condemn his remarks?

  4. Keith Garrison

    I always try to make judgements of people I hire by getting them to share the things they do not know that might be related to their job duties. I am pretty sure of what I do not know and what areas I am in need of personal improvement. It is though interesting to note that I may be just imagining my level of competence! LOL

  5. Mark Ellenberger

    As a CNC Tech, I love the absolute look of distraught and foreboding that comes over the faces of Production Foremen and Operators, as they ask, “can you fix this” I answer “I don’t know, I’ve never seen this problem before” then smile broadly. The machine industry is about going where you haven’t gone before. So few can crack a book, look at a print, the unknown can be an interesting puzzle.

  6. Skip

    This effect is cultural. “North Americans seem to be the kings and queens of overestimation. If you go to places like Japan, Korea or China, this whole phenomenon evaporates,” Dunning said.
    That is possibly because Eastern cultures value self-improvement, while Western culture tends to value self-esteem, he said.

  7. Peter Schroth

    These results are very explainable, Cornell, an Ivy League School, is very hard to get into and thus the students there are smarter than average. They have been shown that most of their short lives they were in the top of their class, and it seems reasonable they think they are good because they have done well so far. The same should hold true with chess players, competitive debaters, and medical professionals. . It would be interesting to see the study done with a more representative cross section of the population.


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