Blissful Incompetence

Posted on February 20, 2014 by Robert Ringer Comments (26)

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Have you ever been exasperated by the incompetence of others?  Worse, have you ever been amazed by the overconfidence of someone who has repeatedly demonstrated his ineptitude?  If so, you’re not alone.  This phenomenon is rampant in the dumbed-down, feel-good 21st century Western world.

Two Cornell University psychology professors, Justin Kruger and David Dunning, have done extensive research on this topic, which has resulted in a theory popularly known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.  Oversimplified, it is their contention that incompetent people often suffer from delusions of superiority (e.g., most politicians), the result being that they overrate their own abilities.

Interestingly, it is the very fact that such people have such a low level of competence that they lack the awareness to accurately assess their own skills.  Further, they tend not to recognize the higher skill level in others.  Worst of all, because they do not recognize their lack of skills, they are extremely difficult to teach.  Over the years, I’ve run into this phenomenon with many job applicants and new employees.

When I was a real estate broker in my late twenties, I became conscious of the fact that I was surrounded by human blasts of hot air from every direction — buyers, sellers, real estate agents, and, above all, attorneys.  With just a handful of exceptions, I found that most of the people I dealt with seemed to have an abundance of self-confidence but, to put it bluntly, didn’t know what the hell they were talking about.

Later, when I became an author, it was more of the same.  I had to deal with an industry that is saturated with both incompetency and baseless overconfidence — especially in those feeding at the troughs of major publishers.  If you’re a longtime reader, you already know my story, so I won’t bore you with the details again except to say that my first book was rejected by twenty-three publishers, along with some stinging rejection letters, some of which were nasty slap-downs.

It quickly became clear to me that the publishing “experts” who rejected my book were clones of one another who recited the same talking points, so I made the decision to ignore their input and, though I had no publishing experience, publish my book myself.  The result?  To the embarrassment of many in the mainstream publishing industry, I succeeded in promoting my book into a New York Times #1 bestseller.

Which brings me to today’s Internet age, where I find the Dunning-Kruger effect to be more rampant than ever.  Incompetence has become a pandemic, as has its bedfellow, overconfidence.  There’s something about the Internet that makes the most inept people on the planet believe they know how to build SEO-friendly websites, outsmart Mark Zuckerberg and build Facebook likes exponentially, and make a fortune sitting at the kitchen table in their underwear while hatching get-rich-quick marketing schemes on their laptops.

In the late nineties and early 2000s, I dealt with so many Internet flakes that I thought of changing my last name to Kellogg.  It was not only embarrassing, but costly.  Now that I am, by default, immersed in the Internet world, I’ve become pretty darn good at identifying the Dunning-Kruger crowd — and, even more important, ignoring those who are part of it.

Having said this, I should point out that there’s another aspect of the Dunning-Kruger effect that you need to be aware of if you are fortunate enough to be among those who are blessed with a high degree of competency:  Many people who are highly competent tend to overrate the competency of those with whom they come in contact and underrate their own competency.  For lack of a better name, let’s call it the Reverse Dunning-Kruger effect.

When I was a wet-behind-the-ears entrepreneur in my mid-twenties, I tended to be intimidated — even awed — by the hotshots who had all the answers.  I couldn’t understand why I was so dumb when everyone around me seemed to be so smart.  Little did I know that my feelings of inferiority were a good sign of things to come.

Why?  Because I now understand that people who suffer from the Kruger-Dunning effect have no such worries.  They really do believe their flattering opinions of themselves, and their false self-assessment blinds them from seeing the depth of their own incompetency.

I recall, some years back, one of the smartest, most competent people I’ve ever worked with telling me that he fears making decisions because he worries about being wrong and looking bad in the eyes of his employees.  He said he didn’t trust his own judgment because he felt his opinions were biased and he therefore needed an outsider’s perspective.

This is dangerous thinking.  When you’re good at something, it’s a big mistake to assume that other people are good at it as well.  Worse, it tends to cause you to underestimate your own ability.  To paraphrase a conclusion of Dunning and Kruger, the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error in judging the abilities of others.

Thus, as strange as it may seem, a high level of competence may actually weaken one’s self-confidence, as the competent individual may falsely assume that others have an understanding of the subject at hand that is equivalent to his own.  Trust me, they usually don’t.

In case you’re confused or worried about whether you are afflicted by the Dunning-Kruger effect or the Reverse Dunning-Kruger effect, allow me to sum it up this way:  Just ask yourself how close your mind-set is to that of a fairly competent guy by the name of Albert Einstein, who once said, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.”

If you can relate to Einstein’s words, you are almost certainly not afflicted with the Dunning-Kruger effect.  That being the case, you should concentrate your efforts on (1)  not allowing yourself to become a Reverse Dunning-Kruger victim and (2) steering clear of the Dunning-Kruger types who saturate the world, especially those in your work life.

Robert Ringer

+Robert Ringer is an American icon whose unique insights into life have helped millions of readers worldwide. He is also the author of two New York Times #1 bestselling books, both of which have been listed by The New York Times among the 15 best-selling motivational books of all time.

26 Responses to “Blissful Incompetence”

  1. PaBlum says:

    How right you are. But there is already a name for those of us afflicted with what you have named Reverse Dunning-Kruger victims. We're known as neurotics.

  2. Lawrence says:

    I believe the reason there are so many over confident braggarts today is because of the teaching practices of the last 50 or more years. In competent students have been passed along to the next grade. They are given much higher grades than they earned to make the schools and teacher look good. This continues right on through college and when they get out in the real world they think they know everything when they really know nothing. They have been dumbed down.

    • Peggy says:

      That is so true! Over here, teachers are not allowed to fail a student. They are told to randomly throw points at their grades until they are artificially passed to the next grade. By the time they get to about the tenth grade, they are so hopelessly behind that they just drop out. I guess the school district is more concerned with the fail rate than the drop out rate…

  3. Larry Fosselman says:

    The Dunning-Kruger effect is so true that it is scary! I am 73 years old, and, have been negotiating physician contracts with health insurance plans for the past 47 years – the Dunning-Kruger effect becomes more obvious with each passing generation of insurance executives that I deal with. The first 10-15 years, I had many moments when I thought it was me – only with time did I realize what we know today as the Dunning-Kruger effect – it's real!

  4. True but beware of large groups of stupid people. Mass has power.

    • Larry Fosselman says:

      Steve – Sad, but, very true! And, they are breeding like mice!

    • And a lot of these knuckleheads are massive themselves, in ego and body size. No good reason other than being tall, that a woman should weigh over 150 and a man over 200 pounds, unless you are in the pursuit of developing muscles. Would love to see an Obama care fat tax. Anything over that, you get taxed a $10 a pound over the limit. The 51% that voted for him would revolt big time.

  5. Mauri Oaksmith says:

    I understand exactly how the Dunning-Kruger effect was used and worked well (for a while). I have been in several professions where people actually "acquired" accents, military histories, graduate degrees from prestigious institutions and other delusional credentials. I lost substantial accounts to these people. In some instances, I was asked to assist in damage repair to clients who were caught in the webs that were woven by these clever but incompetent "professionals". Sometimes I could help, and sometimes it was like trying to
    unring a bell.

  6. Steven Brooks says:

    Excellent article — it explained a lot to me. Now, if the people suffering from the DK effect have "blissful incompetence", how then would you describe those with Reverse DK — "doubtful competence"? By the way, I very much relate to Albert Einstein. Thanks again.

  7. The thing with business with other people, I am nebulous, because I get the sense someone will take credit for my hard work, that they never would have had such an idea on their own to think for themselves and going around looking like a frickin genius, when they are just doing personal politics and being a thief and a liar.

  8. Paul Haslam says:

    Hey Rob,
    Great post, i'd call them the B,S.'ers.They're everywhere. John Carlton did a great podcast on introverts that
    resonates with your post. ( http://pi4mm.com/ ) . It's a sad fact that 'gobby' people seem to get the ' lions share'
    of life, but as john puts it – the introverts are really in control – we just can't be arsed with bullshit.

  9. laleydelexito says:

    Thank you!!!!!

    I stopped paying attention to knows-it -all's a long time ago

  10. I think we can tie in the Dunning-Kruger effect with another phenomena you put forth, the "you won't get credit for it theory." Dealing with an overbearing, incompetent person is rather frustrating, because if you do an excellent job, the person won't give you any credit for it. In fact, this type of person doesn't trade value for value because he or she under-estimates the value you have to offer and over-estimates value they have to offer.

  11. Richard says:

    Wow, Robert.

    I first bought your book from an ad, I think, in the Miami Herald in probably 1973. Could've been WSJ, but I think it was the Herald. I wanted to publish my own books, and you were my hero. I have had some pretty good success since then, although it took awhile.

    Like lots of people, I loved your humor more than anything.

    Winning Through Intimidation was great!

    And yet … this article is the best you have ever done.

    Thank you,

    Richard

  12. Kelley says:

    Oh my gosh, this is one of the absolute best pieces of thinking I may have ever read! I also note that many people in their comments feel the need to analyze or put in their own comments! Interesting. This is a great analysis of the reality of the world. I think it needs to published and shared through out the world! I love it, thank you Robert.

  13. joesugar says:

    I remember reading about the Dunning-Kruger effect a number of years back and have always been amused by the irony of it (the lack of a skill prevents you from recognizing your lack of skill). As for worrying if you are affected by it, I would suggest that if you have the self awareness to ask the question, the answer is probably no.

  14. I enjoyed reading this wonderful article! Reminded me of 2 things (at least):

    First, the old saying, "Never take advice from someone more messed-up than you" takes on a new level of wisdom. Beware a giver of advice — he may be like a job applicant whose only skill is preparing a resume.

    And Einstein's comment, taken to its limit, becomes "Every day I learn a bit more and know a bit less, and someday I'll have learned everything and I'll know nothing".

  15. Ernie Zelinski says:

    Great article: I wish that I had your writing ability. Your two first books were an inspiration to me to leave the corporate world and make a successful living working for myself.

    This quotation applies in regards to the article:

    "The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent full of doubt."
    — Bertrand Russell

    I first learned about this phenomenon in this article:

    Incompetent People Really Have No Clue, Studies Find / They're blind to own failings, others' skills
    http://articles.sfgate.com/2000-01-18/news/176355

  16. Richj108 says:

    I worked at a company, in the 1990's, that hired a CEO who just came from a company that went bankrupt under his watch. He made many bad decisions at his new company that caused it to hurt financially. He was fired again.

    My point is this Dunning-Kruger effect can apply to CEOs and Boards of Directors. When they are at the same company, it is the same company it turns out to be a disaster for stockholders and employees.

    • Patrick says:

      And the scary thing is that Boards of Directors are in multiple company's, not just one organization to mess up, but numerous!

  17. Robby Bonfire says:

    There are many dots which can be connected, here. A lot of this "overconfidence" is posturing designed to give people the impression of "expertise," and convey an aura of "success," when someone is selling a product or service of dubious value. Good examples of this are the ego-maniacs at YouTube who are hustling their system they claim can win at the Las Vegas Craps tables, when every odds proposition offered by the house gives the house the percentage edge over the player.

    One fatuous clown, in particular, I found especially vexing. He kept insisting, in our email communications, that he was alerting his "clients" to the "best bets" a player "can take advantage of," at the tables. I pointed out to him that just because some propositions are lesser punitive, i.e., lose money at a slower rate than the worst bets on the board, it doesn't make them "best bets" it makes them lesser bad bets. He disputed this, and insisted his offerings are a "public service."

    My point is that many of these shysters who are selling us up the river use "overconfidence" as a sales tool to compensate for the fact that they lack "image power" – are not world famous, so that they know they have just a few seconds to gain and hold our limited attention span. Thus the over-the-top, right out of the box claims of expertise and "success, "Because I want to help people," a red flag line that should make people run faster than a speeding bullet, when it comes to economic "self defense."

  18. dale averill says:

    We are always speaking mostly about ourselves when we criticise. Look in the mirror, see who is Blissfully Incompetent, boastful, overconfident, etc.

    • imgettingdizzy says:

      Maybe, but don't forget that observation is not always criticism. I think incompetence can be objectively measured.

  19. Jim says:

    Great article Robert. As for myself, I've run into this "phenomenon", with both co-workers AND MORESO, with former bosses. So much so that it has hindered my getting promotions, and even got me let go from a job.

    The ultimate kick in the teeth: being let go by a boss who is still living in the 90s, never learns anything new, and not as sharp as you are. And the whole department knows it. Ironically, HIS boss was just as clueless, so to Him, the guy is a sharp cookie. Sometimes you just have to shake your head and move on. But it is frustrating nonetheless.

  20. Jean says:

    "incompetent people often suffer from delusions of superiority (e.g., most politicians), the result being that they overrate their own abilities." It pretty well stinks when one of these has the title of "supervisor." The only thing he's good at is lying to others about what he's done, and then scrambling to find other people to blame when the truth comes out. The irony is, his lies have caused all of his shields to be fired so now his incompetence is on full display.

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