Got competence?

Here’s a term that puts some academic weight behind an age-old truth: the “Dunning-Kruger effect.”

I noticed the term in a recent missive about a public administration issue in Guam. I don’t have any stake in that issue, but the notion of the Dunning-Kruger effect stuck with me. It serves to put a name on a phenomenon that we’ve all seen but that’s often difficult to describe.

The effect is named for a pair of Cornell academics, David Dunning and Justin Kruger, who published a psychological study in 1999: “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.”

The gist is that weaker minds tend to have unrealistically generous opinions about their abilities. They not only have delusions of adequacy, but they have delusions of superiority, with the very bottom of the bunch seeing themselves as well-above the average. Dunning and Kruger measured these traits in various ways. The report is easily available on the Web, so if you want to dig into the numbers, they await your attention. In the meantime, I’ll note that the study summary says that, overall, the subjects in the 12th percentile rated their abilities in the 62nd percentile.

As dramatic as that result is, the study might actually understate the effect. That’s because the subjects were all students at Cornell, and Cornell draws from the top of the intellectual deck. I don’t know if anyone has run the same study from a broader sample of participants. Maybe somebody did and wound up running away, shrieking in despair, never to be found again.

Anyway, moving back to the basic gist, this whole subject is nothing new, of course. It’s as old as human nature itself.

Identifying this trait is one thing, but learning to manage its effects in work and life is not always easy. Some of my friends, professionals who aspire to be well beyond the indignity of having to suffer fools, get utterly exasperated when they’re up against examples of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

I long ago made my peace with it, or I have to the extent that it’s not gnawing at my leg at any particular time. I’d like to ascribe my indifference to a graceful air of a high-mindedness, but it’s more likely rooted in a joke I heard when I was about 15.

The joke went like so: A football player bit the fingers off an opponent whose hand wound up inside the player’s facemask. When asked to account for his actions, the player said, “Everything on the outside is theirs. Everything on the inside is mine.”

It wasn’t a belly-laugh joke, but the player’s practice of yielding to all but the most proximate of contexts strikes me as elegant philosophy. With the Dunning-Kruger effect in mind, we know that stubborn incompetence has always been an element in human affairs, so if you’re hoping to purge the world of its presence before you can feel happy, or if its mere existence makes you feel angry or annoyed, you’re not going to be a happy camper.

This really is a ripe topic for playing devil’s advocate.

For example, we’re holding an implicit assumption that being competent is preferable to being incompetent. But is this logic really sound? Are competent people necessarily happier in life?

We do have to acknowledge that there are substantial costs and sacrifices involved in obtaining certain types of competence. Consider, for example, the top professions. Earning the magic letters after your name often involves the stress and struggle of academic competition, and/or military training, and/or professional training. In the aggregate these elements can gobble up an entire decade. Once you’re finally rolling and can take a bit of a breather, when you decide to take the first real vacation you’ve ever had in your entire life you might realize you’re already 30 years old.

Meanwhile, competence in the lettered realms generally goes hand in hand with conscientiousness, which means putting principled notions ahead of your immediate self-interest. In this realm the hardest pressure is the pressure you put on yourself. I’m not bemoaning the gig, I’m just pointing it out.

After enduring the competition, the stress, the sacrifices, and the changing economic dynamics of their fields, I’ve known many competent professionals who have thrown up their hands, said enough is enough, and who simply walked away from it all. Some found their ways to Saipan. Some others wound up elsewhere in the tropics.

I am reminded of the situation faced by my favorite anti-hero, Capt. Yossarian, from the WWII novel Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. Yossarian is the bombardier in a B-25 bomber. He is up against the fact that crew members adjudged mentally competent to fly are going to get shot at by the enemy, while those adjudged not mentally competent for duty won’t be flying, and, hence, won’t be getting shot at. Sanity, therefore, can be a deadly condition.

Anyway, those are my random observations about the Dunning-Kruger effect. Many articles have been written about it. So how did mine compare? Well, I’d say it’s in the 62nd percentile or so. Like, yeah, pretty good, huh?

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.
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