Understanding the science of incompetence

Column box-Dr. Carl E. Balita-Entrepreneurs’ Footprints

(Warning: If you are too stupid to know that you are stupid, please don’t read on. You might get hurt before you reach the point of this writer’s intellectual humility.)

IN the open space of social media, we become witness to how freely anyone can appear like an expert armed with full conviction of such expertise and armored by a solid confidence in expressing what is mere, plain and baseless opinion. The year 2020 has given birth to pseudo-volcanologists, pseudo-virologists, false-epidemiologists, self-professed political analysts, among many others. Social media was like an ocean of opinionated exchanges, which led to senseless arguments short of sound logical resolution.  The freedom of expression has crossed the border of responsible content and the boundaries of logical context to trigger the battle of nonsense conduct. 

Some are simply ignorant, yet proud. Others are aggressively fierce, poised to kill or die, yet stand on empty ground. Worst, some are even making a living through digital monetization by simply propagating baseless statements. Others have become successful in making a flock blindly applauding their statement and following their lead.

Some members of the competent and thinking class who cannot tolerate the prevalence of unintelligent discourse in social media have deleted their social-media accounts. Others remain patiently engaged in the futile battle for content, context and conduct and had become the faint voice in the wilderness.

How can you shun a fool who knows not and know not that he knows not, as an Arabian quote asks?

The inventor of the science of stupid

Incompetent people often display inappropriate confidence, which in their perspective feels like knowledge. Charles Darwin said ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.  This is scientifically explained by the Dunning-Kruger Effect, a type of cognitive bias named after sociologists-researchers David Dunning and Justin Kruger who were given the satiric 2000 Ig Nobel Prize in Psychology. Their work is entitled “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” It was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1999.

Dunning and Kruger established data showing that most people believe that they are smarter and more capable than they really are. The Dunning-Kruger Effect asserts that most people are overconfident about their abilities, and the least competent people are the most overconfident.

Incompetent but overconfident

The incompetent people have low ability to recognize such incompetence. Their low cognitive ability makes them overestimate their own capabilities, which is aggravated by their poor self-awareness. In a harsher but more direct-to-the-point statement, they are too stupid to know about their stupidity.

The researchers found that incompetent people are not only poor performers but are also unable to accurately assess and recognize the quality of their own work.  They overestimate their own skill levels.  This leads to their failure to recognize their own mistakes, and even the lack of skills.  Consequently, they also fail to recognize the genuine skills and expertise of other people.

Dunning said that the very knowledge and skills necessary to be good at a task are the exact same qualities that a person needs to recognize that they are not good at that task. So, if a person lacks those abilities, they remain not only bad at that task but ignorant to their own inability.

On the “Mount of Stupid”

The incompetent people have the tendency to use mental shortcuts that allow them to make decisions quickly. They engage Heuristics, which solves problems faster than they would if they did all the computing. They may also find patterns that do not exist.

They lack metacognition, the ability to think about thinking that makes one introspects into his own thinking. This leads to a faulty confidence level which to themselves is anchored on a false perspective of having known enough what needs to be known and on having thought about thinking sufficiently enough. They end up with an illusory superiority and they are on what is referred to as “Mount Stupid.”

This Dunning-Kruger Effect has an impact on what people believe, and consequently affect the decisions they make and the actions they take.

The competent lacks self-belief in the Valley of Despair

At the high end of the competence spectrum, the competent people hold more realistic views of their own knowledge and capabilities. Dunning and Kruger found that the competent experts actually tend to underestimate their own abilities relative to how others did, in what is referred to as the Valley of Despair.

The competent individuals may know that they are better than the average, but they are not convinced of just how superior their performance is compared to others. The problem, in this case, is not that experts don’t know how well-informed they are; it’s that they tend to believe that everyone else is knowledgeable as well.  The highly skilled assume that things they find easy are also easy for others.

This starts in a journey through experience where Dunning and Kruger suggest that as experience with a subject increases, confidence typically declines to more realistic levels. As people learn more about the topic of interest, they begin to recognize their own lack of knowledge and ability. Then as people gain more information and actually become experts on a topic, their confidence levels begin to improve once again.

The Universality of Incompetence towards slope of enlightenment

We all have areas of incompetence in our lives. Here is where the Dunning-Kruger Effect may actually apply to all of us. If unchecked, even the experts who are competent and endowed with wisdom may exhibit the Dunning-Kruger Effect in some areas of their lives.

As adults, we need to understand that we follow through the four stages of learning:

1) Unconscious Incompetence, where we do not know what we don’t know and we don’t care. We are uncomfortable in this stage. This is where everything starts.

2) Conscious Incompetence is where we realize what we do not know. This is the stage that will give us discomfort. It will drive us into learning to relieve the anxiety of the conscious incompetence.

3) Conscious Competence is experienced when we learn anything for the first time and where we may be competent but too conscious of such competence. The consciousness of the competence makes us uncomfortable. Example is when we learned driving for the first time. We may know all the rules and procedure but surely were not comfortable to be on the road.

4) Unconscious Competence is when we reach the level of expertise where everything becomes like the force of habit and is just automatic. In this level, we are most comfortable. Just like an expert driver whose driving becomes comfortably automatic.

Of the four stages, the first and the last are the most dangerous stages because, when we are unconscious about our competence, we are probably unconscious of our incompetence as well. They become one and the same, and in both, we are comfortable.

Overcoming the Dunning-Krugger Effect in the Plateau of Sustainability

Awareness of the Dunning-Krugger Effect is the beginning of our strategy to overcome it. We pass the Mount Stupid to cross the Valley of Despair and the Slope of Enlightenment towards the Plateau of Sustainability. Our awareness will help us break assumptions so we can practice critical thinking to dig deeper. Gaining more valid knowledge and reliable information would lead us into personal recognition that there is so much more to learn.

Gaining objective feedback from others enable constructive criticism that provides for valuable insights into how others perceive our abilities. Such objective feedback will increase consciousness of one’s ability.

It is also advised to confirm what we think we already know. It will help if we can challenge our beliefs and expectations by seeking new ideas and opening up to new perspectives. We break through the comfort zones and discover broader views of our old paradigm and limited mindset. 

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is just one of the many biases that we need to understand so we can journey through life better. As we cross from the Mount Stupid, through the Valley of Despair and Slope of Enlightenment, we leave our footprints toward the Plateau of Sustainability.



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