People in general tend to overestimate their abilities in social and intellectual spheres. This is widely known as illusory superiority, or the above average effect, like the residents of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, ‘where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average’.
In a survey of 161 students in Sweden and the US, Ola Svenson found that 93% of the US sample and 69% of the Swedish sample put themselves in the top 50% for driving ability. Similar results have been found in later studies. A study by Zuckerman and Jost showed that people exaggerate their popularity, particularly when compared to their friends.
But the truly incompetent are in another zone altogether, because they are so unaware of what competency involves. This is now known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, after two psychologists — David Dunning and Justin Kruger — that explored it. As they wrote,
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.
The pair were inspired by a news story in 1995, when McArthur Wheeler robbed two banks, making no efforts to conceal his identity. When captured later in the day, he said ‘But I wore the juice’. He had convinced himself that rubbing lemon juice on his face would make him invisible to cameras, like the ones in the banks.
What we can learn from Dunning and Kruger’s work is this: those that are more skilled — at reading, or playing chess — develop the metacognitive frameworks for self-assessment and assessment of other’s skills. So, mediocre students are less capable at evaluating their course performance than better students.
And Dunning and Kruger predicted — prior to conducting their research — that the only way to increase an individual’s capacity for better self-assessment was to educate them in the domain in question — whether reading, driving, or social interaction — so they could gain the metacognitive framework that would allow them to understand what competency entails.
They conducted studies that demonstrated this hypothesis: those in the bottom quartile of a logic skills test grossly overestimated their scores, while those from the bottom quartile that received more training had lower overestimations.
An interesting side effect on the Dunning-Kruger effect is that high performers tend to underestimate their ability and test performance relative to peers, failing to realize that their peers do not necessarily share their competence.
And perhaps most important, the incompetent are cursed in the social domain. One common way to learn is to watch the behavior of others, and to build a mental model of what is going on in their heads. This is often called theory of mind, a social sensitivity that the incompetent are blind to. They are less likely to be able to judge competence when seeing it.
The takeaway for us in the domain of business is manifold. First, those that are less competent in some skillset will be less able to judge their own abilities or those of others, and will tend to overestimate them. But even those that are apparently skilled fall into this cognitive sinkhole. Dunning related a tale from a colleague’s research:
One of my favorite examples is a study of the engineering departments of software firms in the Bay Area in California. Researchers asked individual engineers how good they were.
In Company A 32% of the engineers said they were in the top 5% of skill and quality of work in the company. That seemed outrageous until you go to Company B, where 42% said they were in the top 5%. So much for being lonely at the top. Everybody tends to think that they are at the top much more than they really are.
So even highly trained people suffer from the above average effect.
It begs the question of how to help people gain more self-awareness. I believe the most likely path — and perhaps the only one — is for us to stay in the mindset of the beginner, finding and following the lead of those we deem as having high competence. Businesses need to structure formal and informal mentoring systems, so that all can benefit from the insights and feedback of those with greater depth of experience. Of course, those who are have the greatest need for growth and improvement are those suffering most from overestimation of skills and are the least likely to see the skills others have.
The key is to help people think about this as behavior and skills, not ability and character. Otherwise feedback may be perceived as a personal attack instead of recommendations for growth.