Too Dumb To Know It?

Posted March 2nd, 2012 at 11:30 pm (UTC-4)

(Photo: Dave Cobb via Flickr/Creative Commons)

(Photo: Dave Cobb via Flickr/Creative Commons)

While doing research on the Internet this week, I came across several articles which caught my eye because of the provocative subject matter; they all essentially posed the same question, “Are people too dumb to make democracy work?”

I must admit I found the question to be both insulting, yet thought-provoking.  The article indicated most humans lack the competence to select the right leaders because they’re unable to properly assess the abilities and competence of others.

The articles cited research done over a decade ago by Drs. David Dunning and Justin Kruger, both at Cornell University at the time.

They discovered people have a hard time knowing what they don’t know.   Or, as others put so bluntly and harshly, some people are just too dumb to realize it.

Wow!  I just had to learn more about the findings, which have become known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

I spoke with Dr. David Dunning this week, and he told me these people lack the skills needed to make correct decisions and, because of that, can’t determine whether those decisions are correct or not.

At the same time, they also have a hard time recognizing competent people or ideas, when those people or ideas are presented to them.

Dunning stresses the research was not about democracy or voters, but he did find it interesting that people tend to link the Dunning-Kruger effect to the question of whether people are competent enough to select leaders in a democracy.

Dr. David Dunning (Photo: Cornell University/Self and Social Insight Lab)

Dr. David Dunning (Photo: Cornell University/Self and Social Insight Lab)

The Dunning-Kruger effect, according to Dunning, is a phenomenon where incompetent people don’t know they’re incompetent, not in every aspect in life, but in areas where they lack skills or expertise, or where that knowledge and expertise may be corrupted or compromised in some way.

“That doesn’t mean you have one problem,” says Dunning. “That means you have two problems.”

The first problem, he says, is that it’s difficult to reach a correct decision because of a lack knowledge.  Secondly, if that knowledge is lacking, a person can’t really evaluate whether or not the decision they make is correct.

“The same expertise that leads you to make a correct decision,” explains  Dunning, “is also the same expertise that allows you to know when a person’s making a correct decision versus the less-correct decision.”

That means poor performers, people who have severe gaps in their knowledge, often don’t know just how badly they’re really doing.

In conducting their research, Dunning and Kruger gave their volunteer subjects a number of tests in areas like logical reasoning, grammar skills, emotional intelligence and other, more-social areas.

The research team also gauged the subject’s knowledge about avoiding sexually transmitted diseases and their ability to differentiate between funny jokes and unfunny jokes.

They discovered people who did poorly in the tests thought they’d performed well,  beating out a majority of their peers, when in fact they had the worst test scores.

Yeah! I think I did pretty good! (Photo: Simon Hammond via Flickr-Creative Commons)

Yeah! I think I did very very well on that test! (Photo: Simon Hammond via Flickr-Creative Commons)

The team also found the poor performers were almost as confident in their decisions as those who did well on the tests.

So could these findings be the result of false pride or ego?

Dunning says they did consider self-deception and ego but found that wasn’t the case among those they studied.

“This isn’t people trying to paper over deficits that some know they have,” Dunning says. “This is people trying to come up with an honest appraisal of how good they are at something, but they just lack the skills to be able to appraise themselves accurately.”

According to Dunning, when poor performers were trained to become competent, they were able to recognize errors they made in the past and became quite willing to make extremely negative evaluations of how they had performed in the past.

Dr. David Dunning joins us this weekend on the radio edition of “Science World.”   He shares more on how to objectively gauge one’s own performance.  Tune in (see right column for scheduled times) or check out the interview below.

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Other stories we cover on the “Science World” radio program this week include:

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

3 responses to “Too Dumb To Know It?”

  1. M. Shahjahan Bhatti says:

    Wonderful analysis of human psyche. Hard found realities are beyond the comprehension of common man. Science is still a victim of magicians. Situation is alarming in far-flung areas of the world. In the universities of of my country, professors teach science subjects in local languages and want students to cram certain important questions and reproduce them in English during examination. World badly needs universal curriculum but very few educational institutions follow it.

  2. Jennifer B says:

    This is such a great story. Thanks for intelligent reporting…is it intelligent, or do I just think it’s intelligent? Duh.

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