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By April 7, 2015March 6th, 2021Culture, Humility

More often than not sociological research simply reinforces a suspicion we’ve had all along. Consequently, the findings don’t get much attention. But occasionally a conscientious journalist rescues a published study from the halls of academia, mines the data for something newsworthy and translates the scholarly results for public consumption. Then we take notice. If only to gloat, “I told you so.”

We can thank Cornell University for researching and the New York Times for reporting a particularly smart example of this sort of validating research. Psychology professor Dr. David Dunning and his team conducted a study in 1999 which confirmed a long-suspected social defect. That is, ignorant people tend to be blissfully self-assured. NYT Writer Erica Goode brought the study to life by deciphering the key points, such as: Beware of incompetent people; they do not know they are incompetent.

Goode also culled this nugget from the research, “People who do things badly are usually supremely confident of their abilities – more confident, in fact, than people who do things well.” (The researchers found that most able subjects in the study were likely to underestimate their own competence.)

This makes sense, in a roundabout way. According to the researchers, the reason for blissful ignorance is that the skills required for competence typically are the same as those necessary to recognize competence. Incompetent people, consequently, suffer doubly. “Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices,” Dr. Dunning wrote, “but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.”

The deficiency in “self-monitoring skills,” the researchers observed, helps explain such things as day traders who routinely lose money in the stock market, unfunny individuals who insist on telling obnoxious jokes, and the politically clueless who righteously pontificate at dinner parties. (In testing various theories of incompetence, the subjects who scored lowest on tests of logic, English grammar and humor were also the most likely to “grossly overestimate” their performance.)


Be forewarned. Discreetly sharing this research in social settings might help quell annoying cluelessness; however, referring to it in the workplace could prove perilous. This warning is based on something else we’ve all suspected. Incompetence – notably, the volatile combination of ignorance and arrogance — persists among executives for good reason. As Upton Sinclair observed, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”




  • Gary says:

    Your best piece, yet. I love it. I can think of two fellow teachers that fit this study.

  • Harold says:

    I guess I would like an operational definition of “incompetence”, especially when it seems that the competent people want to define it. Maybe it’s best not to judge people based on one’s own standard, but rather understand and work with each individual based upon individual abilities. We can’t be competent in everything we do, so does that mean we’re all incompetent!

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