Extract from “Bad Science” by Ben Goldacre describing one of his favourite psychological papers: “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognising One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self Assessments”, by Justin Kruger and David Dunning.
Kruger and Dunning noted that people who are incompetent suffer a dual burden: not only are they incompetent, but they may also be too incompetent to assay their own incompetence, because the skills which underlie an ability to make a correct judgement are the same as the skills required to recognise a correct judgement.
As has been noted, surveys repeatedly show that a majority of us consider ourselves to be above average at various skills, including leadership, getting on with other people and expressing ourselves. More than that, previous studies have already found that unskilled readers are less able to rate their own text comprehension, bad drivers are poor at predicting their own performance, on a reaction-time test, poorly performing students are worse at predicting test performance, and most chillingly, socially incompetent boys are essentially unaware of their repeated faux pas.
Kruger and Dunning brought this evidence together, but also did a series of new experiments themselves, looking at skills in domains like humour and logical reasoning. Their findings were twofold: people who performed particularly poorly relative to their peers were unaware of their own incompetence; but more than that, they were also less able to recognise competence in others, because this, too, relied on “meta-cognition”, or knowledge about the skill. Perhaps you have come across this type of person in business?