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Another article that has influenced what I am up to, is one titled “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” Now if this is the first time you’ve heard of this article then you are probably thinking the same thing I was when I first found it – it is a funny title but can’t be real. But it is a legitimate article from 1999 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, by Justin Kruger and David Dunning of Cornell University – I’ll link to the PDF of the article as well (mirror – 498KB).

The main points of the article that I am interested in, are the possible consequences for people who believe that their skills or knowledge are actually more advanced than they are in reality. Using the categories from the Dreyfus Model, what is the impact of a person who is really a Novice in a particular skill believing that they are an Expert?

The authors state clearly that those that believe themselves to be at a higher skill level than they really are “suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.” Further these people do not have the “skill, or the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error.” In general they found that people suffered the “Above-Average Effect” – that is, that people tend to believe that they are above-average in most all subjects among their peers. “Incompetent individuals … will be less able than their more competent peers to recognize competence when they see it”.

In other words until you learn more about a particular skill you (1) don’t know what you don’t know and (2) may believe you know much more than you actually do know. So your assessment of how much you know about a topic is actually inversely proportional to the amount that you do know. For example, the more you learn about Physics the more you realize how little you actually know – and understand how much more there is to learn. First you have a basic idea of the different chemical elements, then understand something about atoms, then learn about protons, neutrons and electrons, then learn that you can break even these up into quarks (and a mess of other stuff) then realize that mass and energy are basically the same thing at some level (let’s not even get into Quantum Mechanics and String Theory). What you initially thought was pretty simple and straightforward has become quite detailed and complex. Conversely, if you have only played a few games of Chess, and can make your moves very quickly, you may think that a Chess expert who takes a longer time to move is not as good at the game as you are.

In the study the only way found to help people with inflated self-assessments was “Paradoxically, improving the skills of the participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities.” So once they learned more about the different topics they realized how little they actually knew to begin with. Hence the “I’ve been so stupid” or “I didn’t realize ….”.

In a thought-provoking conclusion to their study they make an analogy between ignorance in a particular topic and a neurological condition called anosognosia which is “Caused by certain types of damage to the right side of the brain. Anosognosia leaves people paralyzed on the left side of their body. But more than that, when doctors place a cup in front of such patients and ask them to pick it up with their left hand, patients not only fail to comply but also fail to understand why. When asked to explain their failure, such patients might state that they are tired, that they did not hear the doctor’s instructions, or that they did not feel like responding – but never that they are suffering from paralysis. In essence, anosognosia not only causes paralysis, but also the inability to realize that one is paralyzed.”

So what does this mean for kids learning about Physics, Space, and Technology? If they only really do learn enough to be a Novice or Advanced Beginner, and never become Competent, they could (1) think they really know an “above-average” amount about these important topics – i.e. even think they are an Expert just because they passed a test or got an “A” in a class, and (2) make bad decisions and not recognize important science and technology in their future. The only way to save kids from this is to enable them to experience and learn more about these important topics and become Competent. As a bonus they will also have an accurate assessment of what they know in these areas and be able to recognize important science and technology in their future (and save them from being fooled by bad science and technology fads).

More on this to come …

p.s. the Dreyfus Model and Unskilled and Unaware are also great tools for interviewing prospective employees and creating training or mentoring programs, but that is a whole other topic.