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Clueless: Dolts overestimate their smarts, researchers say

Wednesday, February 23, 2000

By Dennis B. Roddy, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The bad news is that many people are incompetent. The other bad news is that the fools don't know it.

  (Stacy Innerst, Post-Gazette)

Unskilled, inane and blind to their ineptitude, dunderheads abound, and their shortcomings span an impressive range of disciplines from common grammar to joke telling.

That was the finding of a recent study by a pair of Cornell University psychologists who confirmed what any viewer of "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire" may have suspected: Oafs is everywhere.

Even before he did his research, Cornell researcher David Dunning noticed the basic incompetence of many Americans as he watched a call-in show on C-Span, the public affairs channel on which a Ph.D. may be explaining relativity on one line while a crack addict blames Martians for bad weather on the other.

"You meet up with people who say crazy things and you ask yourself: 'Don't these people realize how crazy they sound?' " Dunning said.

According to his study, they do not.

The study, by Dunning and fellow researcher Justin Kruger, measured various skills of human guinea pigs (another phrase for undergraduates).

Subjects were tested on use of logic, knowledge of English grammar and ability to rate an array of jokes.

Dunning and Kruger said they learned that students who scored below average, when asked how they thought they did, consistently believed they had done well.

"These findings suggest that unaccomplished individuals do not possess the degree of meta-cognitive skills necessary for accurate self-assessment that their more accomplished counterparts possess," the pair wrote in an article published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Was this a surprise to Dunning?

"Not after I had taught for several years," he said.

One of the more alarming discoveries was that the same skills needed to do a competent job were the very ones that a person needs to know he's not competent.

"People performing badly tend to have very little insight into how badly they're performing," Dunning said in response to just the right question from this interviewer. "The reason they're in that position is they suffer a double burden. Because they're incompetent, they perform poorly, but because they're incompetent, that robs them of the ability to recognize that they're performing poorly."

The solution, he said, is to make them competent. Good luck.

While researchers have investigated competence and self-awareness in other studies, Dunning and Kruger broke some new ground by including a measure of humor and joke-getting skills.

Dunning didn't like the idea at first because humor, after all, is an idiosyncratic thing. Most people think they are as funny as, say, newspaper reporters almost always are.

Despite Dunning's misgivings, he and Kruger rounded up various bon mots from Woody Allen, Al Franken and Jeff Rovin's "More Really Silly Pet Jokes."

"To assess joke quality, we contacted several professional comedians via electronic mail and asked them to rate each joke on a scale ranging from 1 (not at all funny) to 11 (very funny)," the pair wrote.

The lowest rating went to this joke: "What is big as a man, but weighs nothing? Answer: his shadow."

(Pause to allow reader to regain control of self.)

The highest went to an observation by Franken: "If a kid asks where rain comes from, I think a cute thing to tell him is 'God is crying.' And if he asks why God is crying, another cute thing to tell him is 'Probably because of something you did.' "

Test subjects were asked to rate the jokes and then guess how they thought they did against the panel of experts.

"On average, participants put their ability to recognize what is funny in the 66th percentile," Dunning and Kruger wrote. This meant, of course, that, on average, most people think they're above average.

While Kruger admits the measure for humor was "a blunt instrument," the finding that incompetent people assumed they'd done better than average at recognizing a good joke was consistent with their conclusions in the logic and grammar experiments.

Why, then, do the incompetent overestimate themselves and what, short of promoting them to management, can be done about it?

"Very rarely do we receive accurate social feedback from others," Kruger said. "Little kids and drunks are really the only ones who violate this. We are taught that if we don't have something nice to say about someone, don't say anything."

In fact, someone needs to say something, the researchers found. When informed of their errors and shown how to get it right, the previously incompetent test subjects suddenly handed up more realistic assessments of their performance.

In short, they got a clue.

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