Pure Genius

Q&A: Why 40% of us think we're in the top 5%

Q&A: Why 40% of us think we're in the top 5%

Posting in Science | From Issue 15 April 7 & 14, 2014

Psychologist David Dunning explains that not only are we terrible at seeing how stupid we are, but we're also too dumb to recognize genius right in front of us.

In 1996 McArthur Wheeler walked into two banks and attempted to rob them in broad daylight, wearing no disguise. The video surveillance caught his face clearly and later that day he was recognized and arrested, to his surprise. He remarked, “But I wore the juice.” Wheeler mistakenly believed that rubbing lemon juice over your face and body rendered you invisible to video cameras. He had tested this apparently, by shooting a Polaroid of himself, and somehow his image mysteriously never appeared in the shot.

Cornell University psychology professor David Dunning read about Wheeler and it struck an idea: If Wheeler was too incompetent to be a bank robber, maybe he was also too incompetent to know he was incompetent in the first place. Dunning and his team went on to publish a study and found that indeed incompetence can mask the awareness of one’s incompetence. The phenomenon is now called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Since then Dunning has performed many studies on incompetence. And he has uncovered something particularly disturbing: We humans are terrible at self-assessment, often grading ourselves as far more intelligent and capable than we actually are. This widespread inability can lead to negative consequences for management and for recognizing genius.

I spoke with Dunning while he was on sabbatical in Palo Alto, Calif., and asked about the negative impact of inaccurate self-assessment and also about a new sub-shoot of his research -- that apparently we are unable to recognize genius in our midst.

You’ve said that people’s self-views hold only a tenuous to modest relationship with their actual behavior and performance. What are some examples?

Well for instance, what people say about their expertise and what they demonstrate on tests [from minor quizzes to serious entrance exams] tend not to be highly correlated whatsoever. If you ask people to rate their own managerial skills and also have their employers and peers rate them, once again, what you get is [nearly zero correlation].

But what your supervisor and peers say about you are very strongly correlated with the quality of your work.

Whether it be an intellectual task, social task, any task, people’s beliefs about the quality of their work does not bear much relationship with reality, as far as we can measure it.

And you’ve found that people tend to overrate far more often than underrate themselves?

Yes. If I do a study where I measure what people think about themselves versus how well they actually perform, I will expect to see marked over-confidence.

Can you share one example?

One of my favorite examples is a study of the engineering departments of software firms in the Bay Area in California. Researchers asked individual engineers how good they were.

In Company A 32% of the engineers said they were in the top 5% of skill and quality of work in the company. That seemed outrageous until you go to Company B, where 42% said they were in the top 5%. So much for being lonely at the top. Everybody tends to think that they are at the top much more than they really are.

Have you found that gender skews the results in any way?

In one area, men on average are going to say they have more have more scientific skill than women have. That is a split that starts happening in the United States around the teenage years, but it is not necessarily mirrored in reality. You can give people a math quiz in which both men and women are performing at exactly the same level, but the men think they are doing just fine and the women are dramatically underestimating how well they are doing.

Do you think this influences their chosen paths?

We wanted to see if interest in science was connected to the misperception of performance. After giving students a pop quiz we asked them if they wanted to volunteer for a Jeopardy contest. We found that women were 20% less likely to be interested. [Their level of interest in the contest] was directly connected to how well they thought they had done on the quiz, but it had no relationship to how well they had actually done.

Why is it so hard to see ourselves the way we really are?

It is extremely hard to spot your shortcomings. One reason is this notion of “unknown unknowns.”

What is that?

People do what they can conceive of, but sometimes there are better solutions, or considerations and risks they never knew were out there. They don’t take a solution they don’t know about. If there is a risk they do not know about, they don’t prepare for it. There are any number of unknown unknowns that we are dealing with whenever we face a challenge in life.

You’ve also done studies on how this general over-confidence leads to problems in corporate feedback.

Giving feedback especially in the workplace is a very touchy situation, and companies make reviews more touchy by directly connecting it to things like pay raises. There are two reasons people may not be receptive to feedback: One is it’s going to come as a complete surprise to them, because they probably don’t know what their weaknesses are, second is that it’s just a natural human tendency to be defensive.

So, you have to work around that. There are three different things you can do as a manager. The first thing is if you are going to give feedback make sure that it’s about a person’s behavior or their actions. Do not make it about their character or their ability.

If you come at them with words like 'You are lazy,' or 'You’re not all that innovative,' then you are attacking their character.

Second, you want to give feedback often. If feedback is rare, people will naturally get their defensive antenna up.

Third, you do not want the only feedback to come when the supervisor is angry. There are a lot of companies where that is the habit. The supervisor has to be driven mad before he or she gives the feedback that a person really needed to hear earlier. How are you going to listen to a mad person yelling at you? So, that is the last thing to avoid.

One of your papers concludes that top performers are much more likely to keep improving and low performers are not.

Right. In one study on emotional intelligence we offered MBA students a book, The Emotionally Intelligent Manager for half price. And we discovered a paradox. When we offered the book, two-thirds of the top performers bought it. But only 20% of low performers bought it. It was the top performers, not the low performers who showed the most interest in improving.

There is some evidence that this is a general tendency, at least among Westerners. There are studies where students have either done really well or really poorly on puzzles. And, then during a waiting period, they just watched to see if the students returned to these puzzles and played with them. It’s the students who have done well that go back and play with these puzzles. But, poor performers want nothing to do with these puzzles.

Mind you, in Japan, that pattern flips. It is when the student has done poorly that they return to those puzzles. The explanation there is that we Americans are more of a self-affirmation culture, whereas Japan is more of a self-improvement culture. And, so people’s orientation to success and failure differ across the two places.

How can we become better at self-assessment?

It is almost impossible for an individual left to their own devices to get self-assessment right. The worth of one’s ideas runs through other people. That is, workers should pay attention to what other workers are doing. You can watch other people to benchmark how they handle the same sorts of tasks or situations. Seek out feedback from other workers or managers.

Get a mentor who can tell you about all those unknown unknowns.

Your recent work surrounds genius. Specifically the fact that we cannot recognize a genius even when they are right in front of us?

Our past research was about poor performers and how they did not have the skills to recognize their shortcomings. Well, ultimately, we found out that that is true for everybody. It’s a problem we all have. We might recognize poor performers because we outperform them. The problem is we do not see mistakes we are making. But people who are more competent than us, they can certainly see our mistakes.

Here is the twist: For really top performers we cannot recognize just how superior their responses, or their strategy is, or their thinking is. We cannot recognize the best among us, because we simply do not have the competency to be able to recognize how competent those people are.

That’s pretty profound. It implies we should approach everyone thinking they know something we don’t.

The idea that we’ve been exploring currently in my lab is that genius hides in plain sight. People do not have the competence or the skill or the intellectual scaffolding to recognize people who out-perform them. 

How do you discover this?

We test [subjects] on their logical reasoning skill. Then give them tasks that have been completed by other students, ranging from students who have really done horribly to students who have a perfect score. And we ask the [subjects] to estimate how many answers each student got right.

Essentially what you find is everybody gets the poor performer. They see the person who may be getting four out of twenty right. They get that person. But, on average, the person who got 20 out of 20 right, a perfect score, is seen as merely an average performer by everybody else. They think that person only got 12 or 13 items right.

So what is happening is that when you see an answer and it might be the correct answer, but you’ll think it's wrong because you think your answer is right. You miss how well this person is performing. Even if we offer subjects up to $50 for correct estimates, there is no improvement in their accuracy.

The problem is that we are not smart enough to recognize genius within our midst. Everybody can agree on who the poor performers are, but you get no agreement on who the top performers are.

But just to back up a little, you've proven that others are by far the best judge of our own ability and talent. So does this only happen with those who are average or below average, and not geniuses?

The data suggests that others do better anticipating our competence than we do ourselves.  That isn’t true in every case, in that other people may not have the expertise to spot geniuses, but other people appear to have an advantage when spotting our poor performances that remain opaque to us. 

So because we cannot recognize those who are the top of the top performers, this is why we have missed geniuses in the past?

Yes. It is interesting to go through the decades and see how many times things that are now considered incredible works of genius, were not recognized at the time.

My favorite example of this is the movie Vertigo, which just this past year went to the number one spot in the British Film Institute’s Sound and Site poll, displacing Citizen Kane, which had been there for like 40 or 50 years.

When Vertigo came out it was a flop. They got very mixed reviews. But now it's considered a singular act of genius in cinema 50 years later. Genius ideas are not going to bowl everybody over immediately. It may take time before the genius in an idea is recognized. What I don't know is how many times it is never recognized. That is an interesting open question.

Vertigo is an odd, odd movie, and so it has taken awhile for people to recognize that that is not oddness, but rather innovation.

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Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure