Did Romeo and Juliet die of the Swine Flu?

I’m guessing you’ve had this experience: a co-worker or associate of some kind does things very badly. S/he does them badly all the time. Your perception—and you probably don’t think about this at all—is that he (let’s call him Buddy) simply does not know that he’s performing badly. If Buddy knew, for example, that his reports were full of errors, he’d fix them. It turns out you’re right, right about all the Buddies. The same thing that causes Buddy to make all the errors also makes him not bright enough to realize that’s what he’s doing.

It is science. It has a name: The Dunning-Kruger effect, after the researchers who demonstrated the reliable and measurable occurrence of it. A nutshell version of their findings, as presented in the abstract of their paper (“Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead To Inflated Self-Assessments”) is that not only do people incompetent in certain areas “reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.” This section of the article—published in Psychology in December of 2009--puts it clearly:

Mediocre students are less accurate than other students at evaluating their course performance. Unskilled readers are less able to assess their text comprehension than are more skilled readers. Students doing poorly on tests less accurately predict which questions they will get right than do students doing well.

Note, I’ve omitted the citations to previous studies in that passage. But, essentially, when Buddy thinks Romeo and Juliet died of the Swine Flu, he doesn’t say, “yeah I’m kind of a bad reader.” The reason is that Buddy doesn’t know what makes a good reader. He’s not just lazy, isn’t in denial, isn’t afraid to admit he’s a bad reader. If he knew what made a good reader, he’d see the mutual suicide in Romeo and Juliet.

Kruger and Dunning tested this in the experiments leading to the 2009 paper (though this wasn’t the first of their papers, and they had introduced some of the basic concepts about a decade earlier) by asking various batteries of questions in multiple areas, scoring them, and asking them to rate their own performance and their performance in relation to their peers. The worse a subject’s performance, the more drastically he or she misjudged the extent of the failure, with people scoring in roughly the 10th to 15th percentile figuring they were right around 65.

To flesh it out a bit further, people who scored higher underestimated their superiority. Further, on a battery of questions pertaining to logic, after the poor scorers were shown how to improve their performance, they then became better at judging their scores and correctly guessing which questions they’d missed. It’s also worth noting that when incompetent subjects were shown good work done by others, they failed to reliably recognize it as such.

Kruger and Dunning were originally inspired to look into an inability to judge one’s inadequacies (or to use metacognition, thinking about one’s thinking) because of a bank robbery gone awry. The bank robber had learned about the pastime of scrawling out characters in lemon juice and then heating it up to make the lemon juice appear. He then “reasoned” that if he put cold lemon juice on his face, he would be invisible. After he was caught, instead of realizing his mistake, he expressed disbelief that “the juice” hadn’t worked.

Extreme example though he is, this bank robber not only exemplifies the Dunning-Kruger effect, but also brings up a good analogy to it, anosognosia. The authors give a brief summary of this syndrome. Researchers in the neurosciences ran across people paralyzed on the left side of their body. When ask to pick something up with their left hand, and unable to, they gave a variety of reasons, never stating simply that they were paralyzed. The conclusion the researchers came to was that the anosognosia, the paralysis, also caused a lack of awareness of the paralysis. In short, if you don’t have access to an inventory of skills needed to be good at a certain activity, you won’t realize you don’t have those skills.

If ever there were a good endorsement for showing people the error of their ways, this is it. In a world of grade inflation, permissive standards, and ideas that poor performance is the fault of those judging the performance, we don’t do a great job of showing people they are making mistakes. Death by Swine Flu is Buddy’s “interpretation,” his “special viewpoint,” the opinion to which he’s entitled.

The problem, though, is that this approach leaves Buddy convinced he’s in the 65th percentile of readers. It might be hard to teach Buddy comprehension, but lying to him about it will make it impossible.

Did Romeo and Juliet die of the Swine Flu?