In Positive Psychology we like to look at instances of what works to discover ways for people to have more pleasure, engagement, meaning, and achievement in their lives. How, then, does studying incompetence lead to improved performance?
The Double Whammy of Incompetence
Competence or the lack of it may be the result of many things, including good versus poor preparation and efficient versus inefficient neuro-developmental style. What highly competent and incompetent students share is this: both miscalibrate the perception of their own and of others’ performance. The difference is that competent students believe their peers have done only slightly better than they have, and so they work to apply success strategies. Incompetent students, on the other hand, believe they have done significantly better than their peers and therefore do not take advantage of strategies to achieve even greater success. How’s that for a counter-intuitive finding?
Kruger and Dunning (2009), in a series of four experiments first published in 1999, found that students performing in the bottom quartile tend to be unable to recognize that their performance is poor compared to that of their peers. Students whose actual performance was at the 12th percentile, for example, overestimated their expected scores by 50 points! They were four times more likely to miscalibrate than their competent peers. They overestimated both their actual scores and their ranks compared to peers. As a consequence, it’s very difficult for such students alone to make the necessary changes to deliver a better outcome, since they believe that they are doing both personally well and better than their peers. In contrast, top students underestimate their performance compared to peers, thinking their peers have done better than they actually have, though not by nearly as much as the poor performers think they have out-scored their peers.
All of us have to work at accurately calibrating our metacognitive or “thinking about thinking” skills. When a person is incompetent because of lack of knowledge, skills, or experience, metacognition is difficult. Things that get in the way include
- Explanatory style: Personal, permanent, and pervasive explanations about when things go poorly, such as blaming the teacher or boss or a parent without seeing personal contribution
- Fixed Mindset: The belief that intellectual ability is a fixed trait to be discovered. With a growth mindset, people believe that intellectual ability is something to be developed through effort and education. Growth mindset is the way to go!
- Inaccurate self-awareness: Moving on confidently instead of accurately comparing ourselves to an objective measure or competent peers
- Misapplication of strengths: For example, being unrealistically optimistic, or failing to be honest about the need to self-regulate
We Believe We Are Above Average
Statistics professors will remind you, tongue-in-cheek, that in the fictitious town of Lake Wobegon, all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average. This year there are 1.65 million new college graduates in the US alone, according to the Christian Science Monitor. Nearly every one of them who prepares a resume and a cover letter in search of work will fall victim to the Lake Wobegon Effect, whereby they will believe that armed with a college degree, lots of knowledge, and maybe even some time spent in an internship, they should be swamped with job offers.
Statistically, of course, it is just not possible for everyone to be above average. As Kruger and Dunning found, however, the people most lacking in the knowledge and skills for doing well are often extremely unaware of this fact. Unable to benefit from social comparison (yes, sometimes it is good) and recognize the difference between competence and incompetence, they fail to gain insight into how they might change for the better.
You Can Recalibrate Your Thinking
The good news is that people can significantly recalibrate metacognitive skills. By learning strategies that can be used in specific problem-solving settings, students increased the accuracy of their self appraisals. In fact, once bottom quartile study participants gained the metacognitive skills and self-awareness to note their errors, they performed as well as competent students.A must-read book illuminates ways we can adjust our metacognitive skill and self appraisal. Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average, by Joseph T. Hallinan, reminds us that we must regularly re-calibrate our metacognitive skills even if we are already competent.
- Keep a written record of hits, misses, and never-attempted items prevents us from a post-hoc view through rose-colored lenses.
- Value being happy, because happier people make quicker decisions both more accurately and with less back-and-forth
- Know how strengths may cloud your vision, making you think you are more virtuous, and thus higher achieving, than you really are.
Not knowing—or learning—how to learn is profoundly disabling. It is unnecessary, too, since teachers can teach students not only what to know but how to know and use information and strategies in the ways that competent students do. Being able to accurately self-assess is an essential social, intellectual, and life skill. Curriculum can integrate direct instruction about metacognition and self-appraisal skills. To be most effective, teachers would need to learn how to do this for themselves first. Otherwise they, too, can fall into the poor metacognition trap.
A sign in my office reads, “It’s not how hard you work; it’s how you work hard.” When you connect the dots between your efforts and your achievement, it is more obvious what works. What do you do to be competent and to replicate your good work?
Dweck, C.S. (1999), Self-theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development (Essays in Social Psychology). Philadelphia: Psychology Press.
Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books.
Hallinan, J. T. (2009). Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average. New York: Broadway Books.
Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (2009). Unskilled and Unaware of It: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Psychology, 1, 30-46.