How the Unskilled Overestimate Their Competence

Have you ever noticed that people who are very good at certain tasks tend to underestimate their performance on that task? What about those who are unskilled being overconfident in their abilities? According to a study by Kruger and Dunning (1999), the inability to recognize true skill level is what leads to these inflated self-assessments.

The most novice in a skill usually have the most trouble recognizing their incompetence. This notion is commonplace today, however this research study confirms the thoughts of many.

This study researched overconfidence in English grammar, logical reasoning, and humor. According to the study, those in the lowest percentage of skill on the particular subject tend to overestimate their ability the most. Even after a training session in logical reasoning, novice participants nominated themselves to be in the 55th percentile when in reality, they averaged in the 13th percentile. They thought they had answered 5.5 questions correctly when, on average, they had correctly answered .3. It was determined that the cause of this overestimation was a lack of metacognitive skill.

The most interesting point brought to light by the researchers is how life experience has not sufficiently prepared them to estimate their abilities. They postulate it may be associated with the idea that children are raised with the “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all” mentality, and how generally negative feedback for the sake of it is considered rude and frowned upon. They assume another contributor to be “autocorrect” or grammar analysis in word processing software that will fix the issue but not give an underlying understanding about what went wrong.

The most expert in each of the areas tended to underestimate their performance, while those who were above average in the third quartile tended to most accurately predict their abilities. The lowest performers inability to rate themselves far outshone the inability of top performers, leading the practitioners to rightly quote Thomas Gray with, “Ignorance is bliss.”

Can we assume that novice decision makers will tend to inflate their abilities as well? It would be interesting to see how this phenomenon shows itself in decision making tests, particularly in a self-report environment.


About the Author:


Cognitive Performance Group, LLC is a woman-owned small business with offices in Orlando, Florida, and Cleveland, Ohio. It was founded by Dr. Karol G. Ross, Jennifer K. Phillips, and William A. Ross. The three CPG Principals developed the concept for a company to support cognitive performance improvement in industry and government. (more...)

  1. My goodness, how true! I’m struck by the way the “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all” mentality sometimes (if not often) leads to an over-estimation of the quality of a product or output. How often does one hear “It looks great!” when “it” is actually merely acceptable? Sometimes politeness trumps honesty at the expense of quality.

    • Andres,

      This mentality is indeed something prevalent in our society. It can even sometimes have more serious implications, like the health of a friend or loved one because of a fear of being rude that was instilled from this “polite” mentality. While it is important to teach children boundaries, there seems to be a distinct lack of critical feedback available for those who could benefit from it.

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