In 1996 McArthur Wheeler walked into two banks and attempted to rob
them in broad daylight, wearing no disguise. The video surveillance caught his
face clearly and later that day he was recognized and arrested, to his surprise. He remarked, “But I wore the juice.” Wheeler mistakenly believed that rubbing
lemon juice over your face and body rendered you invisible to video cameras. He
had tested this apparently, by shooting a Polaroid of himself, and somehow
his image mysteriously never appeared in the shot.
Cornell University psychology professor David Dunning read about
Wheeler and it struck an idea: If Wheeler was too incompetent to be a bank
robber, maybe he was also too incompetent to know he was incompetent in the
first place. Dunning and his team went on to publish a study and found that indeed
incompetence can mask the awareness of one’s incompetence. The phenomenon is
now called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
Since then Dunning has performed many studies on incompetence. And he
has uncovered something particularly disturbing: We humans are terrible at
self-assessment, often grading ourselves as far more intelligent and capable
than we actually are. This widespread inability can lead to negative
consequences for management and for recognizing genius.
I spoke with Dunning while he was on sabbatical in Palo Alto, Calif., and asked
about the negative impact of inaccurate self-assessment and also about a new
sub-shoot of his research -- that apparently we are unable to recognize genius in our midst.
You’ve said that people’s self-views hold only a tenuous to
modest relationship with their actual behavior and performance. What are some
Well for instance, what people say about their expertise and what they
demonstrate on tests [from minor quizzes to serious entrance exams] tend not to
be highly correlated whatsoever. If you ask people to rate their own managerial
skills and also have their employers and peers rate them, once again, what you
get is [nearly zero correlation].
But what your supervisor and peers say about you are very strongly
correlated with the quality of your work.
Whether it be an intellectual task, social task, any task, people’s
beliefs about the quality of their work does not bear much relationship with
reality, as far as we can measure it.
And you’ve found that people tend to overrate far more often
than underrate themselves?
Yes. If I do a study where I measure what people think about themselves
versus how well they actually perform, I will expect to see marked
Can you share one example?
One of my favorite examples is a study of the engineering departments
of software firms in the Bay Area in California. Researchers asked individual
engineers how good they were.
In Company A 32% of the engineers said they were in the top 5% of skill
and quality of work in the company. That seemed outrageous until you go to
Company B, where 42% said they were in the top 5%. So much for being
lonely at the top. Everybody tends to think that they are at the top much more
than they really are.
Have you found that gender skews the results in any way?
In one area, men on average are going to say they have more have more
scientific skill than women have. That is a split that starts happening in the
United States around the teenage years, but it is not necessarily mirrored in
reality. You can give people a math quiz in which both men and women are
performing at exactly the same level, but the men think they are doing just
fine and the women are dramatically underestimating how well they are doing.
Do you think this influences their chosen paths?
We wanted to see if interest in science was connected to the
misperception of performance. After giving students a pop quiz we asked them if
they wanted to volunteer for a Jeopardy contest. We found that women were 20%
less likely to be interested. [Their level of interest in the contest] was directly
connected to how well they thought they had done on the quiz, but it had no
relationship to how well they had actually done.
Why is it so hard to see ourselves the way we really are?
It is extremely hard to spot your shortcomings. One reason is this
notion of “unknown unknowns.”
What is that?
People do what they can conceive of, but sometimes there are better
solutions, or considerations and risks they never knew were out there. They don’t
take a solution they don’t know about. If there is a risk they do not know
about, they don’t prepare for it. There are any number of unknown unknowns that we
are dealing with whenever we face a challenge in life.
You’ve also done studies on how this general over-confidence leads to
problems in corporate feedback.
Giving feedback especially in the workplace is a very touchy situation,
and companies make reviews more touchy by directly connecting it to things like
pay raises. There are two reasons people may not be receptive to feedback: One
is it’s going to come as a complete surprise to them, because they probably don’t
know what their weaknesses are, second is that it’s just a natural human
tendency to be defensive.
So, you have to work around that. There are three different things you
can do as a manager. The first thing is if you are going to give feedback make
sure that it’s about a person’s behavior or their actions. Do not make it about
their character or their ability.
If you come at them with words like 'You are lazy,' or 'You’re not all that
innovative,' then you are attacking their character.
Second, you want to give feedback often. If feedback is rare, people
will naturally get their defensive antenna up.
Third, you do not want the only feedback to come when the supervisor is
angry. There are a lot of companies where that is the habit. The supervisor has
to be driven mad before he or she gives the feedback that a person really
needed to hear earlier. How are you going to listen to a mad person
yelling at you? So, that is the last thing to avoid.
One of your papers concludes that top performers are much more likely
to keep improving and low performers are not.
Right. In one study on emotional intelligence we offered MBA
students a book, The Emotionally Intelligent Manager for half price. And
we discovered a paradox. When we offered the book, two-thirds of the top
performers bought it. But only 20% of low performers bought it. It was the top
performers, not the low performers who showed the most interest in improving.
There is some evidence that this is a general tendency, at least among
Westerners. There are studies where students have either done really well
or really poorly on puzzles. And, then during a waiting period, they just
watched to see if the students returned to these puzzles and played with them. It’s
the students who have done well that go back and play with these puzzles. But,
poor performers want nothing to do with these puzzles.
Mind you, in Japan, that pattern flips. It is when the student has done
poorly that they return to those puzzles. The explanation there is that we Americans
are more of a self-affirmation culture, whereas Japan is more of a
self-improvement culture. And, so people’s orientation to success and failure
differ across the two places.
How can we become better at self-assessment?
It is almost impossible for an individual left to their own devices to
get self-assessment right. The worth of one’s ideas runs through other people.
That is, workers should pay
attention to what other workers are doing. You can watch other people to
benchmark how they handle the same sorts of tasks or situations. Seek out
feedback from other workers or managers.
Get a mentor who can tell you about all those unknown unknowns.
Your recent work surrounds genius. Specifically the fact that we cannot
recognize a genius even when they are right in front of us?
Our past research was about poor performers and how they did not have
the skills to recognize their shortcomings. Well, ultimately, we found out that
that is true for everybody. It’s a problem we all have. We might recognize poor
performers because we outperform them. The problem is we do not see mistakes we
are making. But people who are more competent than us, they can certainly see
Here is the twist: For really top performers we cannot recognize just
how superior their responses, or their strategy is, or their thinking is. We
cannot recognize the best among us, because we simply do not have the
competency to be able to recognize how competent those people are.
That’s pretty profound. It implies we should approach everyone thinking
they know something we don’t.
The idea that we’ve been exploring currently in my lab is that genius
hides in plain sight. People do not have the competence or the skill or the
intellectual scaffolding to recognize people who out-perform them.
How do you discover this?
We test [subjects] on their logical reasoning skill. Then give them
tasks that have been completed by other students, ranging from students who
have really done horribly to students who have a perfect score. And
we ask the [subjects] to estimate how many answers each student got right.
what you find is everybody gets the poor performer. They see the person who may
be getting four out of twenty right. They get that person. But, on average, the
person who got 20 out of 20 right, a perfect score, is seen as merely an
average performer by everybody else. They think that person only got 12 or 13
So what is happening is that when you see an answer and it might be the
correct answer, but you’ll think it's wrong because you think your answer is
right. You miss how well this person is performing. Even if we offer subjects up
to $50 for correct estimates, there is no improvement in their accuracy.
The problem is that we are not smart enough to recognize genius within our midst. Everybody can agree
on who the poor performers are, but you get no agreement on who
the top performers are.
But just to back up a little, you've proven that others are by far the best judge of our own ability and talent. So does this only happen with those who are average or below average, and not geniuses?
The data suggests that others do better
anticipating our competence than we do ourselves. That isn’t true in
every case, in that other people may not have the expertise to spot
geniuses, but other people appear to have an advantage when spotting
our poor performances that remain opaque to us.
So because we cannot recognize those who are the top of the top performers, this is why we have missed geniuses in the past?
Yes. It is interesting to go through the decades and see how many times things that are now considered incredible works of genius, were not recognized at the
My favorite example of this is the movie Vertigo, which just this past year went to the number one spot in
the British Film Institute’s Sound and Site poll, displacing Citizen Kane, which had been there for
like 40 or 50 years.
When Vertigo came out it was a flop. They got
very mixed reviews. But now it's considered a singular act of genius in cinema 50 years later. Genius ideas are not going to bowl everybody over immediately. It may take time before the
genius in an idea is recognized. What I don't know is how many times it
is never recognized. That is an interesting open question.
Vertigo is an odd, odd movie, and
so it has taken awhile for people to recognize that that is not oddness, but rather innovation.
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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com