Why Incompetent People Think They Are The Best

This election season in the United States has been nothing short of The Kardashian level of drama, suspense and, of course, sheer frustration. World over people have seen, tweeted, and blasted Facebook statuses wondering and contemplating how the US elections got the candidates that it did. In the midst of all of that drama, I came across a paper written by Cornell University researchers, Justin Kruger and David Dunning in 1999 (at least it was published in 1999). The paper, like Newton’s Apple, fell right into my lap just as I was losing faith in humanity.
The paper, very simply shows us that incompetent people don’t know that they are incompetent.
Yup. Turns out that people who are ignorant, and/or incompetent actually don’t know they are incompetent, they tend to overestimate their abilities and cannot gauge the competence of other people! (Think of a certain candidate whose name starts with T and ends with P)
The Thought Process 
Scientists (God Bless Them ;)) have known for a while now that success and satisfaction depend on your knowledge and skill in whatever field you are working in.
What the authors of the paper wanted to look into was whether incompetent people actually even had the means to find out that they were incompetent.
Basically, they wanted to know if silly people knew they were silly.
What The Did
They conducted four studies with Cornell undergraduate students who had to answer questionnaires on Humor (65 participants), Logic (45 participants) and Grammar (84 participants). Grammar had two phases. So yes, the math checks out.
What They Found
Here is where my mind was blown. Really. The scientists found that students who scored in the bottom percentile, estimated their performance to be better than the average of the students who scored in the higher percentile. Example, if X got 7/20 in a questionnaire, and X was in the bottom percentile of X’s peers, X estimated that X performed better than 66% of X’s classmates. Make sense? In short, X doesn’t know how much X actually knows. Isn’t that incredible? Ignorance truly is bliss.
The better part of the weekend though (for me at least, because the reading took a while), and the fact that restored my faith in humanity, was that incompetent people could be made more competent by improving their skills!
What This Means for Us
If you ask me, we just solved the world’s problems. Think about it. If we could teach people to stop being incompetent, we could essentially teach people to stop being ignorant.
Isn’t that incredible? One person at a time, we could learn to appreciate what we know but more importantly recognize what we don’t know. After all, what we know is only what WE know. It’s like looking in a mirror all your life and never looking outside the window.
With this study, we know that people who can’t gauge where they stand relative to others, are not able to gauge where other’s stand relative to themselves. And this gives us an amazing learning opportunity where schools, colleges and workplaces can expose students to different perspectives, new ideas, new learning and could in turn, teach them to stop being incompetent and ignorant.
On a personal level, it goes back to the basics for us –
  1. Read more
  2. Read about people and from people who you don’t agree with.
  3. Keep learning. No matter how old you are or how young you are.
  4. Challenge yourself.
  5. Learn from others.

I’ll be back soon with more amazing research, till then follow The Psych Way on Twitter, Facebook and subscribe to my newsletter, right after the TL;DR!

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The Paper 
Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(6), 1121-1134. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.77.6.1121