Unskilled and unaware


Jason Collins


March 7, 2011

Robin Hanson has had another stab at the oft-quoted paper by Kruger and Dunning, Unskilled and Unaware of It. The first couple of sentences of the paper’s abstract gives Kruger and Dunning’s basic (and somewhat amusing) claim:

People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.

Hanson notes that this paper is commonly used by people to suggest that those who disagree with them are confused idiots who lack the basic ability to recognise their error.

Ignoring for a moment other possible explanations for Kruger and Dunning’s empirical results (which is the purpose of Hanson’s post), I always found the “ignore the idiot” interpretation of the paper to be missing the point. The problem is that it is not clear who the idiot is. Trying to self-assess whether you are correct is subject to the biases identified by Kruger and Dunning. If you are an idiot, you are unlikely to know this. If anything, the paper suggests that, without objective evidence, one should be more humble in assessing their ability.

Onto the interpretation of the results, it is also an interesting question about what extent the overestimation of ability results in a “dual burden” as claimed by Kruger and Dunning. There is some evidence that self-deception can be adaptive, such as von Hippel and Trivers discuss in a recent paper. Apart from assisting in deceiving others (it’s easier to lie if you don’t know you are), self-deception in the form of overconfidence might encourage one to try tasks and persevere at them, with occasional success, where a more realistic assessment may result in a decision not to try at all. Starek and Keating’s work on self-deception and swimming also illustrates this idea (HT on the swimming: Radiolab). To the extent this is the case, an overconfident estimation of one’s ability may not be a burden but may help someone to get out there with what they have.