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How phonies and self-promoters came to rule the world

“Our obsession with money and susceptibility to charisma, over-confidence and surface gloss have propelled us into an age where sham, spin, trickery and twaddle have become the new norms,” writes Shelley Gare, in the Sydney Morning Herald:

How phonies and self-promoters came to rule the world

… We can’t say we weren’t warned….

Almost 25 years ago, David Dunning, a psychology professor at Cornell University in upper New York state, became fascinated by a trait he had noticed in some of his students taking tests: “They expressed all sorts of confidence about how they’d done but no, they hadn’t done all that well.”

He wondered about its relevance in the workplace: “I was trying to figure out: do incompetent people really not know how badly they are performing?” On the phone from Ann Arbor, where Dunning now works at the University of Michigan, he marvels as he recalls how he and a graduate student, Justin Kruger, “decided to take a look at the people who were doing really poorly and we tested them on logic, grammar and humour. And what we discovered was that – after the tests and after they had seen the responses of other, more competent students – the people at the bottom wouldn’t revise their self-impression at all.” They continued to over-estimate how well they had done. “After that, even I was convinced the theory was right,” Dunning laughs.

Their 1999 findings are known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. It explains how many incompetent people not only are confident that they are competent but, it also turns out, when they see real competence, their incompetence means they can’t recognise it. Meanwhile, in a true catch-22, competent people, because they know what they don’t know, will underestimate their competence – and often be less confident. Dunning and Kruger’s findings spawned hundreds of articles and features, and a musical rendition, The Incompetence Opera. In 2000, the authors were awarded the Ig Nobel prize, which celebrates research “that makes you laugh, then think”. The election of uber-confident businessman Donald Trump to the White House in 2016 only gave the theory fresh life….

Here’s video of the Dunning Kruger Song, the thrilling finale to The Incompetence Opera. The opera premiered as part of the 2017 Ig Nobel Prize ceremony:


Improbable Research