When surveyed, eighty to ninety percent of Americans consider themselves possessed of above-average driving skills. Most of them are, of course, wrong by statistical definition, but the result itself reveals something important about human nature. So does another, lesser-known study that had two groups, one composed of professional comedians and the other composed of average Cornell undergraduates, rank the funniness of a set of jokes. It also asked those students to rank their own ability to identify funny jokes. Naturally, the majority of them credited themselves with an above-average sense of humor.
Not only that, explains the host of the After Skool video above, “those who did the worst placed themselves in the 58th percentile on average. They believed that they were better than 57 other people out of 100. Their real score? Twelfth percentile.” Here we have an example of the cognitive bias whereby “people with a little bit of knowledge or skill in an area believe that they are better than they are,” now commonly known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. It’s named for social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, who conducted the aforementioned joke-ranking study as well as others in various domains that all support the same basic finding: the incompetent don’t know how incompetent they are.
“When you’re incompetent, the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is,” Dunning told Errol Morris in a 2010 interview (the first of a five-part series on anosognosia, or the inability to recognize one’s own lack of ability). “In logical reasoning, in parenting, in management, problem solving, the skills you use to produce the right answer are exactly the same skills you use to evaluate the answer.” What’s more, “even if you are just the most honest, impartial person that you could be, you would still have a problem — namely, when your knowledge or expertise is imperfect, you really don’t know it. Left to your own devices, you just don’t know it. We’re not very good at knowing what we don’t know.”
This brings to mind Donald Rumsfeld’s much-mocked remark about “unknown unknowns,” which Dunning actually considered “the smartest and most modest thing I’ve heard in a year.” (Morris, for his part, would go on to make a documentary about Rumsfeld titled The Unknown Known.) But whether you’re the Secretary of Defense, a celebrated filmmaker, a Youtuber, an essayist, or anything else, you’ve almost certainly been afflicted with the Dunning-Kruger effect. But if we can make a habit of subjecting ourselves to bracing objective assessment, we can — at least, at certain times and certain domains — break free of what T. S. Eliot called the endless struggle to think well of ourselves.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.