Unskilled and Unaware: Why Stupid People Don't Know How Incompetent They Really Are.
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Flaws in Reasoning and Arguments: Unskilled and Unaware
Overconfidence in Self-Assessment
By Austin Cline, About.com Guide
Being mistaken about something is not a flaw in a person’s reasoning and neither is being unskilled in constructing or analyzing logical arguments. Where a flaw does occur, however, is in the fact that the worse a person is at such tasks, the less likely they are to realize it, the more likely they are to overestimate their abilities, and the less likely they are to realize that others’ efforts are superior.
We don’t need to speculate that such a connection might exist or rely upon anecdotal experiences we ourselves have had - Justin Kruger and David Dunning at Cornell University demonstrated it in psychological studies and published their findings in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in an article entitled “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.”
People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it. Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although their test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd. Several analyses linked this miscalibration to deficits in metacognitive skill, or the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error. Paradoxically, improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities.
The more incompetent a person is at a given skill, the less likely they are to realize it because they also lack the metacognitive skills necessary to evaluate their performance. The authors liken this to the neurological condition known as anosognosia. The result of damage to the right side of the brain, sufferers of anosognosia are not only paralyzed on the left side of the body, but they are also unable to realize that they are paralyzed.
When asked to pick up something with their left hand, they fail to do so and offer weak rationalizations for this failure - like not hearing the instruction or simply being too tired. These patients are not lying to researchers; instead, they lack the ability to understand what plain and obvious evidence should tell them: they can’t move their left hand or arm. If this is possible with physical situations, perhaps it also happens with purely psychological situations as well - and thus perhaps incompetence causes not only poor performance but also an inability to recognize that the performance is poor.
The same studies showing that unskilled people are more likely to be unaware of how lack of good performance also reveal that intensive training in a skill not only raised performance, but also improved participants’ ability to rate their earlier performance before the training. People began to perform better and understood that what they did before was bad. The only way to know how well you are doing a task is to also have a good idea of how to do the task well. If you don’t understand how to do a task well then you also necessarily lack an ability to realize that you can’t do it well - or to realize when others are doing it better. Quoting again from the study:
For example, consider the ability to write grammatical English. The skills that enable one to construct a grammatical sentence are the same skills necessary to recognize a grammatical sentence, and thus are the same skills necessary to determine if a grammatical mistake has been made. In short, the same knowledge that underlies the ability to produce correct judgment is also the knowledge that underlies the ability to recognize correct judgment. To lack the former is to be deficient in the latter.
The same can be said about the other skills tested for: humor and logical reasoning. We’ve all had experiences with people who think that they are “above average” - so many regard themselves as above average that it defies descriptive statistics. Too many consider themselves superior to their peers at tasks like driving, working out finances, telling jokes, and socializing.
Those who are superior, on the other hand, tend to rate themselves as only average. They fall victim to the “false-consensus effect,” assuming that their good performance is matched by everyone else. It’s not that they don’t realize they do well, but they fail to realize that everyone else isn’t doing as well. This only changes once they become aware of the problems others have.
Ignorance and incompetence should drive people to become more knowledgeable, but actually they drive people to become overconfident, secure in the belief that they don’t need to be more knowledgeable. Ignorance really is bliss, except for those who are faced with the task of trying to explain to a person that their arguments aren’t so good after all.
As the above study shows, simply telling them this isn’t sufficient. They don’t know enough to comprehend your analysis and critique. Instead, you have to educate them in order to help them become competent - then, maybe, they will come to understand why their arguments are flawed or invalid.
One of the reasons people seem to develop this overconfidence is the lack of negative feedback. If you provide not simply that feedback, but constructive criticisms which help them learn how to do the relevant tasks well rather than poorly, then you might accomplish a great deal.
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