Why the stupid think they’re smart

Psychologists have shown humans are poor judges of their own abilities, from sense of humour to grammar. Those worst at it are the worst judges of all.

You’re pretty smart right? Clever, and funny too. Of course you are, just like me. But wouldn’t it be terrible if we were mistaken? Psychologists have shown that we are more likely to be blind to our own failings than perhaps we realise. This could explain why some incompetent people are so annoying, and also inject a healthy dose of humility into our own sense of self-regard.

In 1999, Justin Kruger and David Dunning, from Cornell University, New York, tested whether people who lack the skills or abilities for something are also more likely to lack awareness of their lack of ability. At the start of their research paper they cite a Pittsburgh bank robber called McArthur Wheeler as an example, who was arrested in 1995 shortly after robbing two banks in broad daylight without wearing a mask or any other kind of disguise. When police showed him the security camera footage, he protested “But I wore the juice”. The hapless criminal believed that if you rubbed your face with lemon juice you would be invisible to security cameras.

Kruger and Dunning were interested in testing another kind of laughing matter. They asked professional comedians to rate 30 jokes for funniness. Then, 65 undergraduates were asked to rate the jokes too, and then ranked according to how well their judgements matched those of the professionals. They were also asked how well they thought they had done compared to the average person.

As you might expect, most people thought their ability to tell what was funny was above average. The results were, however, most interesting when split according to how well participants performed. Those slightly above average in their ability to rate jokes were highly accurate in their self-assessment, while those who actually did the best tended to think they were only slightly above average. Participants who were least able to judge what was funny (at least according to the professional comics) were also least able to accurately assess their own ability.

This finding was not a quirk of trying to measure subjective sense of humour. The researchers repeated the experiment, only this time with tests of logical reasoning and grammar. These disciplines have defined answers, and in each case they found the same pattern: those people who performed the worst were also the worst in estimating their own aptitude. In all three studies, those whose performance put them in the lowest quarter massively overestimated their own abilities by rating themselves as above average.

It didn’t even help the poor performers to be given a benchmark. In a later study, the most incompetent participants still failed to realise they were bottom of the pack even when given feedback on the performance of others.

Kruger and Dunning’s interpretation is that accurately assessing skill level relies on some of the same core abilities as actually performing that skill, so the least competent suffer a double deficit. Not only are they incompetent, but they lack the mental tools to judge their own incompetence.

In a key final test, Kruger and Dunning trained a group of poor performers in logical reasoning tasks. This improved participants’ self-assessments, suggesting that ability levels really did influence self-awareness.

Other research has shown that this “unskilled and unaware of it” effect holds in real-life situations, not just in abstract laboratory tests. For example, hunters who know the least about firearms also have the most inaccurate view of their firearm knowledge, and doctors with the worst patient-interviewing skills are the least likely to recognise their inadequacies.

What has become known as the Dunning-Kruger effect is an example of what psychologists call metacognition – thinking about thinking. It’s also something that should give us all pause for thought. The effect might just explain the apparently baffling self belief of some of your friends and colleagues. But before you start getting too smug, just remember one thing. As unlikely as you might think it is, you too could be walking around blissfully ignorant of your ignorance.

This is my BBC Future column from last week. The original is here.

34 thoughts on “Why the stupid think they’re smart”

  1. “Those slightly above average…were highly accurate in their self-assessment, while those who actually did the best tended to think they were only slightly above average. Participants who were least able…were also least able to accurately assess their own ability.” So, it isn’t metacognition (since then the most able should actually jugde themselves as being the most able, which they don’t do), but simply all humans in the studied culture judge themselves as being slighly above average? Is it a cultural norm? And necessarily, those far below or above average are markedly wrong.

    1. My thoughts as well. Sounds like everyone thinks they are slightly above average. So how can the researchers conclude that the worst skilled have the worst self perception? Sounds like nobody is skilled at assessing their own skill. Said yet another way, the slightly above average people simply guessed at the same answer as everyone else, but they just so happened to be correct due to luck. The only useful take-away from this is not to be intimidated by anyone just because they exude confidence; because their self assessment is most likely flawed.

      1. Just need to do the math. The gap between “poor” and “above average” is far larger than between above average and “best.” Thus the poorest performers are the worst, even though the best are not great, at determining comparative performance.

    2. It was a poor wording of the actual results. The top performers slightly underrated themselves — they rated themselves as well above average, but not to the extreme levels that they scored. From there down, from the highly above average to the slightly below average, people tended to rate themselves accurately. At the bottom of the pack, at the incompetence level, however, there is a sharp deviation — they rated themselves the same as the top performers, putting themselves well beyond “slightly above average”.

      (IIRC, it was done on a 1-10 scale. The 9-10 group rated themselves around 8, the 4-8 group rated themselves accurately, and the 1-3 group gave themselves 8-10s.)

    3. Anyone who is a serious golfer knows how this works. I have never met a golfer including myself who does not think he is better at it than he actually is.

      1. So, you know your not as good at golf as you think you are, however, you still think your better than that! How does that work?

    4. Well, not exactly. Those with low intelligence (in my experience) use a form of self-delusion to save themselves any kind of discomfort for their inadequacies. High intelligence also correlates with humility, a value not praised in American society. When you have no thoughts stopping you from acting on impulse, (as in low IQ individuals) you don’t check your ideas for sources. You take things at face value without looking for anything to back it up.

      High IQs question their beliefs constantly (in my experience). They don’t want to accidentally be wrong, either due to selfishness (they don’t want to be embarrassed) or selflessness (they don’t want to give someone the wrong information which they may use incorrectly).

    5. Ney, let me tell you You are SMART!
      exactly!! .. it is an evolutionary trait humans have acquired throughout their evolution, we tend to keep ourselves within the margins of normal attributes, in all aspects of life we need to be average or “Normal”, but on the other hand our self-esteem can push us to consider ourselves slightly above average which is still within normal.
      So, basically in my opinion none of the participants was really more/less accurate, but rather they all had the same human regular self-assessment norm, which has no relevance to what they really are.

  2. When I was in junior high and high school (roughly ages 12-18), in my English classes we were required to “peer edit” each others’ papers. The teacher would hand them out randomly (if you somehow ended up with your own you were to swap it out again), then tell us we were to correct the paper for something–spelling and grammar, for example. I’ve always scored in the 99th percentile for reading comprehension, writing, grammar, spelling ability, etc. As it turned out, when I was in HS one of my papers got handed to the campus tennis star. I used the phrase “in lieu of” in my paper, and he marked me down for “misspelling” the word “lieu”. I asked him why he’d marked me down, since I knew perfectly well that’s how you spell that word. He blinked, looked confused and said “Well, I’d never seen that word before, so I didn’t know how it was spelled.” Just goes to show you can have an outstanding talent in one area (tennis), while not having the first clue about something else (spelling).

  3. I don’t know if this effect is the same for drunk people, but authorities and PSAs seem to reference this information when warning people that drunk drivers often overestimate their ability to not crash into something when heading home.

  4. I was always wondering if this effect is only by a lack of knowledge of how bad one actually performs, so to say a ‘passive’ component. Or is there also a strong ‘active’ component like proposed by Robert Trivers in Deceit and Self-Deception? Something along the lines of knowing how bad you perform would conflict with your self-esteem, so self-deception kicks in as a saving mechanism. Which obviously is not necessary if you are good at something, in turn enabling you a better self-assesment.

    1. Lbt, I think you’re right. Basically this is all adaptive, because if the stupid, the ugly, the unpleasant, whatever, went around knowing how stupid, ugly, or unpleasant they/we (!) were, then life for such people would be unbearable, confidence would be non-existent and extinction of that individual would probably follow.

      Self-deception is therefore a biologically adaptive and necessary coping mechanism.

  5. Surely the audience are ‘ultimately’ the professionals in regard to whether they find professional comedians jokes funny!

    or should we have 30 homeopaths self judging their expertise, vs a 65 undergraduates rating their skills…

    There is a reason Dunning-Kruger one the Ig-Nobel prize

    perhaps we should label people that label people Dunning-Kruger, Dunning-Kruger… repeat infinitely.

  6. “There is a reason Dunning-Kruger one the Ig-Nobel prize”

    So, you think the past tense of “win” is “one”? What does that reveal, I wonder?

    BTW, you may or may not be aware of this but your writing skills are somewhat lacking and — given your responses — perhaps your reading comprehension as well.

    (None of this implies that Dunning-Kruger didn’t arrive at unfounded conclusions.)

    1. “(None of this implies that Dunning-Kruger didn’t arrive at unfounded conclusions.)”

      Nice double negative buddy 😉

  7. JC: He does have a point though, doesn’t he? I was very surprised to see read about that study design, and even more surprised to see it reported here. I can understand the grammar and logical reasoning test, but I fail to see the connection between testing logical reasoning and testing people’s sense of humour. Speaking of lower quartile humour? Really?

    Professional comedians may not have a very positive opinion of Two and a Half Men, for instance, but that show and its comedy are undeniably popular. This experiment is a bit like asking people to try some chocolate and then comparing their taste to the taste of pâtissiers, as if that meant anything. You surely wouldn’t say a certain person has poor judgement of palatableness. The most you can say (with a different prompt) is that that person has an inadequate judgment of how popular a certain type of chocolate could be regardless of their personal taste… which wouldn’t get you very far.

    I don’t know, perhaps I’m not making any sense… it’s just that the experiment was so poorly conceived that I wouldn’t know where to begin. (The study itself is behind a paywall, so it could be that they wrote “Oh, we know that the humour part is bonkers” in the Discussion)

  8. I think we’re mistaking the difference between what people find funny versus what most often gets a laugh (professionals being the ones who could judge that based on experience).

    1. But that’s just it: professional comedians weren’t asked to rate the jokes based on how funny they would be to other people, but on how funny *they* considered them to be (at least that’s what I’d do if I were asked to rate a joke for “funniness”). The same with undergraduates: they weren’t asked to rate them for popularity but for “funniness”. It’s reasonable to suspect they simply rated higher the ones that they enjoyed the most. If humour is subjective (and this very article supports that idea), then it’s a flawed experiment, isn’t it? For instance, risque humour typically offends some people and delights some others.

      1. I’m pretty sure (and I didn’t plan on paying for the study) that the researchers probably did not attempt to rate the level of “funniness”. It sounded to me like they were instead asking them to rate which jokes would elicit laughter from a crowd .

        Which would give professional comedians an edge in determining the answer. I know, my eyes bleed trying to discern the distinction as well.

        Then again I’m probably overestimating my ability to understand the post.

      2. Hahaha, I think we both at least accurately estimate our abilies. I found the study! https://www.math.ucdavis.edu/~suh/metacognition.pdf

        “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).”

        To be fair, the joke rated lowest (“What is big as a man, but weighs nothing? Answer: His shadow.”) is quite dreadful, and I struggle to think of someone who would think otherwise. But the idea seems to be to rate what “is” funny, and I find that problematic.

        By the way, I find slightly interesting that one of the eight comedians had to be excluded since his ratings “failed to correlate positively with the others”.

      3. Yes, that’s just the point I was thinking of. Humor is subjective, though it seems most people know a really bad joke when they hear it.

        Then again, “Mr. Wrong” and “Nuns On the Run” are two of my favorite movies, so what do I know. :p

      4. “But that’s just it: professional comedians weren’t asked to rate the jokes based on how funny they would be to other people, but on how funny *they* considered them to be (at least that’s what I’d do if I were asked to rate a joke for “funniness”).”

        That’s your fallacy — comedians, being professionals, don’t consider something that THEY would laugh at but that no one else would get as “funny.” To them, funny is a term of art that means “things I can make people laugh with.”

  9. The comedians are at a disadvantage being subject to the mindset of the crowd. An audience that is drinking or after having been “warmed up” in advance may very well think something is funny when maybe if they heard it at a different time sit stone faced. A drinking crowd will often laugh at the less intelligent jokes, ie..”There’s five fly”s in the kitchen. Which one is the cowboy?” The one on the range. That versus one you would that required thought to a drinking crowd would win, sadly.

  10. The link to the research on doctors’ patient interviewing skills appears to be broken. Can you share the source? Thanks

  11. The stupid person thinks he is as smart as the smart person. And there in lays his stupidity

  12. Im a person with a degree of creative talent. Good at art and also a former semi professional drummer. I believe I’m accurately aware of my competency level. Its important to me in order to improve things I’m ‘good at’. Somebody may say “wow your an awesome drummer” to which I’ll give a somewhat humble response. What’s always surprised me is when I try to explain my self assessment people snap “why do you put yourself down?!”

    They almost always fail to realise I’m happy with my competency level and simply assessing how could improve. If that person had the same competency level as me they’d think they were awesome.

Leave a Reply to Mitchell Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: