‘Unskilled and Unaware’: How Not To Be Stupid

‘Unskilled and Unaware’: How Not To Be Stupid

Friday Feature

|how.odious| Year Two: DAY SIXTY-THREE

2016 December 23 [Friday]

“[Ignorance] more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

– Charles Darwin (1871, p. 3) à la (Dunning & Kruger, 1999, p. 1121)

As an aspiring writing, the toughest thing about writing nonfiction is that I tend to stray into rant-type territory, and at this point in my life, I ought to be a better writer, which ultimately means, I ought to be able to say something without being all, what’s the word, bitchy?, about it. Thus, I’ve done a little due diligence and have an interesting little topic about which to write [rant … no … write … not rant … ]. So, here I go.

*caption below

For years, I have been frustrated by how seemingly crazy [stupid] some people act and behave, and for the longest time, I couldn’t figure out what exactly “it” was. You know, that sort of Gertrude Stein-ism of wondering if there’s a “there there”? After basically writing and writing and writing about how I just can’t stand people who are, to put it bluntly, stupid, I realized that that’s probably not the best way to approach dealing with the frustration. So, I opted for a headier approach and began reading and conversing about this frustration with real people. Then, one day, the most perfect thing happened. My long-time life-partner “dropped a bomb on me” (Simmons, Taylor, & Wilson, 1982), when he sent me a link to a study about all of the things I could not prove yet constantly felt.

The link was to a research paper entitled, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” which was published back in 1999 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The whole point of the study, conducted by Justin Kruger and David Dunning, was to test whether or not their argument, “that when people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it,” holds true (1999, p. 1121).

What they’re trying to prove is, if you’re incompetent and/or unskilled, it’s highly likely that you’re unaware of your own incompetence. Another, more-preferred and less-euphemistic, way to state the problem would be, Are stupid people too stupid to know that they’re stupid? The short answer is, yes. Crazy, eh? Obviously, I suggest that each of you read the paper yourself rather than believe what I have to say about it, but since I’ve read the paper, it’s unlikely that the people who actually should read it [those who are “incompetent”] will actually read it because, like the article states, “the incompetent are less able than their more skilled peers to gauge their own level of competence” (Dunning & Kruger, 1999, p. 1122), which means that those who are “incompetent” are less likely to think that they lack some form of knowledge, which further means that this entire Feature will seem pointless to them.

The long answer is that Kruger and Dunning conducted four different studies that tested the participants on various levels of competencies ranging from humor to logic. If you only read the method and results of one of those studies, read Study 4: Competence Begets Calibration (begins on p. 1127). After each participant completed the tests, they were then asked to rate themselves against the other participants, and then, they were asked to predict their own scores. There are many more details to the study, but I’m trying to give a general impression. Again, you really ought to read the study for yourself. The results shed light on the overwhelming consensus that Kruger and Dunning were correct in their initial argument and predictions.

The predictions were as follows:

Prediction 1. Incompetent individuals, compared with their more competent peers, will dramatically overestimate their ability and performance relative to objective criteria.

Prediction 2. Incompetent individuals, will suffer from deficient metacognitive skills, in that they will be less able than their more competent peers to recognize competence when they see it-be it their own or anyone else’s.

Prediction 3. Incompetent individuals … will be unable to use information about the choices and performances of others to form more accurate impressions of their own ability.

Prediction 4. The incompetent can gain insight about their shortcomings, but this comes (paradoxically) by making them more competent, thus providing them the metacognitive skills necessary to be able to realize that they have performed poorly. (Dunning & Kruger, 1999, p. 1122)

As aforementioned, all of Kruger and Dunning’s predictions came true. It seems as though stupid people truly are too stupid to know that they are stupid. Obviously, my writing about all of this is quite crass and probably, what’s the word, condescending?, but I’m just the messenger. Again, since the two research scientists present all of the data in a much more deferential way, you should really just read the paper for yourself. I understand that most people don’t spend their time reading the results of scientific studies, but I find this one to be particularly poignant, especially when considering the state of the world and the past few national decisions, globally, that were voted upon by the general public. The butting of heads, as it were, of the competent and incompetent arise from two very different outlooks. “Thus, the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others” (Dunning & Kruger, 1999, p. 1127).

What’s the point of all this? Honestly, I still don’t know. I only ingested all this info about ten days ago. The study seems to point at two highly conflicting issues: Both incompetent and competent people suffer. “… unskilled individuals suffer a dual burden: Not only do they perform poorly, but they fail to realize it. It thus appears that extremely competent individuals suffer a burden as well. Although they perform competently, they fail to realize that their proficiency is not necessarily shared by their peers” (Dunning & Kruger, 1999, p. 1131).

In conclusion, Kruger and Dunning suggest that they too may have fallen prey to their own incompetencies, which would mean that they are ignorant of their own incompetence. An absolutely wonderful conclusion to have come to realize. They end the article beautifully by basically saying that sure, they found all of these correlations and have results that prove their initial thoughts to be true, BUT the results also suggest that there’s really no way to know whether or not you’re competent because, if you’re incompetent, you don’t know it, which sort of means that all of this work means nothing. Ha! Amazing.

For me, as simultaneously enlightening and frustrating the entire study and research ends up being, the evidence points at something larger. To me, the study sheds light on a simple question that every person should ask him/herself, constantly, but that question can only be asked after s/he accepts that s/he does not in fact know everything, which is the crux of all the research. People are entirely unlikely to consider that they don’t know everything, especially those who know the least. Nevertheless, the question is, “What do I want to know that I already don’t know now?” And further, “How do I make sure I continue to become more knowledgeable aka competent?”

Apparently, no one can really reveal your own incompetence to you, so the answer is quite simple to me. Assume that you’re quite incompetent. Only through this acceptance and understanding of the responsibility you hold over your own life can you ever become more competent. No matter how slowly you achieve some level of competence, all you need to know is that you’ll always be incompetent. All you can hope for is to become less so.

*… not as promotion, of course, but as nostalgia (Gray, 1747).


Darwin, C. (1871). The descent of man. London: John Murray.

Dunning, D. & Kruger, J. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 1121-1134.

Gray, T. (1747). Ode on a distant prospect of Eton College. London.

Simmons, L., Taylor, R., Wilson, C. (1982). You dropped a bomb on me [The Gap Band]. On Gap Band IV [7″ & 12″ vinyl]. Beverly Hills, CA: Total Experience Records.