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Illusion of Superiority

tip to pedantsareus

Justin Kruger & David Dunning. Unskilled and unaware of It: how difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of personality and social psychology 1999, vol.77, no.6, pp1121-1134 ©1999 by American Psychological Association, Inc. •••••••• PERCENTILES. For those unfamiliar with percentile rankings, briefly.... Say you get 95% of questions right in a test — sounds good. But if everyone else does, then your performance is actually average. Percentiles are a method of marking, which ranks your score COMPARATIVE to other scores within a population. If you rank at the 10th percentile, 10 percent of all scores, in the population tested, fall BELOW you. If you rank at the 90th percentile, 90 percent of all test results fall BELOW you — you've made it to the top 10. 50% is dead on average. Bizarrely, in a tendency which has been termed the 'above-average effect', it seems most people — no matter what their competence/ability — perceive themselves as above average, hovering around the 60th percentile.



The title of this article "Unskilled and unaware of It", presents the findings of the research in a needlessly provocative and biased fashion. The unskilled are not exceptional in this study. The highly skilled (and everyone in between) exhibit the exact same condition.

Simply put, human beings appear to assess themselves as being average or slightly above average, regardless of ability.

The special attention paid to the lowest quartile is, I don't think, warranted.


I'd agree if the bottom were off in their self assessment to the same degree that the top was. But there's more than a minor difference.

And what about the final studies where the top were able to self correct when they saw the level of competence they were comparing themselves to while the bottom remained unskilled and unaware?



The conclusion being drawn by the authors of this study (according to the video) is that incompetence is a cause of poor self-assessment. The fact that in the top quartile the most competent people are less accurate at self-assessment than the slightly less competent, along with the fact that the self-assessment line is relatively the same, regardless of competency, seems to me to be good reason to doubt that assessment.

The fact that the self-assessment numbers are so flat, across the board, is far more noteworthy and unusual I think.


"And what about the final studies where the top were able to self correct when they saw the level of competence they were comparing themselves to while the bottom remained unskilled and unaware?"

I agree that makes it more interesting, but again, looking at the graph in the video, I'm still struck by how relatively flat the line remains and that the most competent still underestimate their ability.

That's remarkable.

That was fascinating.

My entire young life I'd always thought I was fairly stupid - thus the monicker - and then a funny thing happened. I entered the real world, am running a business and dealing often with the heads of major businesses which lead me to a realization that astonished me. Most people are rather stupid in regards to actual academic knowledge and just make it up as they go along.

That realization was good for my self esteem, but scary as hell knowing that the people running the show aren't much smarter than I am. (Or, in the case of the last administration, they may be less).

One clarification:

I must exclude academics, scientists and the good people who devote their lives to knowledge from my generalization. When I talk to such people I am reminded once again that I am but a simple chunk of meat that barely evolved beyond flinging his own feces and there are many who are truly brilliant. (Which is how I often feel when reading some of the well thought out and knowledgeable discussions on this site).

Though, I do have one question, If someone has a Ph.D. from Princeton yet is still a devout Catholic who takes the Bible literally in many cases while, should their be a mandatory asterix next to the "Ph.D." in their title?

as in: Stupid Git, Ph.D.*

Just curious. I've been trying to convince my friend it does but she says just it doesn't. And who am I to argue with a Ph.D.?

If someone has a Ph.D. from Princeton yet is still a devout Catholic who takes the Bible literally ... should their be a mandatory asterix next to the "Ph.D." in their title?

It's mandatory, actually.

Tim, ...but, then you may remember what I've said about people who affix the Ph.D. to their name.

It does not seem that the researchers are trying to point out that everyone experiences the "Above Average" mentality, but that competency and the ability to evaluate competency go hand in hand.

In the study both skilled and unskilled people rate themselves around the same percentile when it comes to logic and grammar testing, thinking they will do above average. However when the researchers select the highest and lowest percentiles (based on actual testing) and show them the grade distributions, the skilled workers can reevaluate their skills and will adjust their own rating of themselves to better match the testing, while the unskilled simply continue to believe they will do above average, but don't.

Summed up, the research does not focus on the above average effect, but instead shows that skilled people can better evaluate their own competency. That is to say, an unskilled person who does bad on a test and then is shown the grade distribution will assume they were above average instead of thinking they were below average and repeating the experiment they will still think they will do above average. However a skilled person shown the same data will most likely not underestimate themselves as much the second time.

Thanks for clarifying that; now I don't have to.


If the authors of the study were really claiming cause and effect (as the narrator of this video claims), then more isolation of the cause needs to be done I think.

For example: Did the authors of the study test using a skill that people would be embarrassed to be associated with? Maybe testing a self-assessment of "deceptiveness" would produce much different results (I suspect it would).

Did the authors of the study try testing the same group of people using several skills, such that, a sub-group of people could be identified who score both at the very highest end of one skill and at the same time at the very lowest end in the other skill?

It would also be interesting to see if there are any age correlations to this data. How do different age groups perform?

Wow, yet another study showing how stupid and egotistical people are. Really, do we need to waste our time on this junk?

I have been ignoring the facts about sodomites all this time.

The aspect of this phenomenon that fascinates me the most is that (relatively) competent people are always double-checking their work & qualifying their answers, which appears to observers as incompetence. Meanwhile, the (relatively) incompetent display confidence in their answers, which is often mistaken for competence.

...competent people are always double-checking their work...

I feel better about you saying this. Wouldn't it be nice to have an 'edit function' for our own posts at OGM?

You can edit your posts on the forum. I'm not sure it would be a good idea to allow edits on comments unless there was a way to see what had been edited.

Yeah, I was mostly thinking about correcting errors, but I can see how you might be right.


The content is indeed fascinating, but what a terrible use of video effects. A flickering high-contrast face, jerking around while you're trying to focus? Bad, bad choice. Why make it needlessly hard on the eyes when you've got a point to communicate?

The word is DISAWARE. This drives me nuts. I see people typing "unaware" everywhere I go. Idiots!

Where the F* did that come from? I have checked on my Computer's built-in dictionary, the Concise OED, the American Heritage Dictionary and Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary. Nowhere do I find "DISAWARE"

The word doesn't seem to exist - not that I thought it did!

I will resist the impulse to finish with an epithet!

Ha Ha! He made you look!

Or maybe he's trying to start something... DISAWARE... Got it!

Dang, and I was hoping that "disaware" was somewhere in the video.

I'll see "disaware" and raise "megagaltastic." Just cause I miss the show.

Disaware? I was unaware of that.

Oh dear! Still, tis my own fault - I always was too serenduplicitous for my own good.


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