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Beyond the Kruger-Dunning Effect

By Abraham Thicke

The Kruger-Dunning effect refers to the inability of incompetent individuals to accurately assess their own competence. It was first discovered by two psychologists, you can guess their names, who asked students to predict their exam scores before taking the exam. Whilst students gaining high marks accurately predicted their scores, low scoring students grossly overestimated how well they would perform.

The phenomenon, replicated many times, is usually explained in terms of metacognitive abilities. Since these skills are critical for both gaining and assessing competence, people with low levels of metacognitive ability are doubly cursed.

The Kruger Dunning effect is surprisingly resistant to change. In one study, students who performed badly in an exam were invited to grade the papers of high performing students and then asked to assess their own levels of competence. Did exposure to competence help incompetent individuals gain insight into their own low levels of expertise? It did not. Indeed, the only thing that seems to help the incompetent understand their incompetence is to increase their level of competence. In other words, the incompetent, so long as they remain just that, are fated to inflated estimates of their abilities.

How does the incompetent individual react to the exposure of their incompetence? After all, the discrepancy between the exam score and the perception of competence needs explaining. External explanations, which account for the discrepancy in terms of factors beyond the individual’s control, are appealing because they do not disrupt the existing structure of that person’s belief. Thus, if the low exam score is rationalized in terms of a personal vendetta on the grader’s part, the (illusory) belief in competence can be maintained.

In many domains there is no straightforward way of assessing an individual’s level of ability.  In the absence of feedback, there is no discrepancy to be explained. Worse still, incompetent students are sometimes, for various reasons, given high marks in exams. Their illusion of competence appears vindicated.

Imagine a country ruled by a powerful leader, but one hypersensitive to criticism: in short a leader who might not react well to low exam marks.

Imagine further that the country is making swift progress, but of the backwards kind. The leader may not become aware of this, particularly if his advisors and the country’s media have abandoned all pretence of objectivity and function merely as cheerleaders, like corrupt teachers instructed to give one particular student top marks in all exams. The view from the car window might indicate rapid movement, but the direction of travel is misconstrued.

Of course, more objective if less encouraging noises may emanate from some quarters, from the likes of foreign governments, international media and NGOs. But these can be explained away using external explanations: for example, with conspiracy theories alleging an international plot to thwart the country’s progress. Should such voices become too insistent the thin-skinned leader can always turn off the television or change station. He can also shut down any of the critical organizations he can get his hands on. For good measure, he might imprison some of those dissenting voices and confiscate their assets. What better justification than to claim they are all part of the plot? Anyone else who suspects the car is reversing will likely be too intimidated to say anything.     

Some reader might construe the above as an allegory about Turkey. Perish the thought!

Facts on the ground in Turkey are clearly at odds with the above description. For starters, President Erdoğan is well-known as highly competent, open-minded and receptive to constructive criticism. He has also stated, on numerous occasions, that Turkey’s media is as free, if not freer, than anywhere else in the world. None of the scores of journalists in prison has been jailed for journalism. They have been incarcerated for offences utterly unrelated to journalism ― just look at the charge sheets. The same goes for the numerous media organizations shut down or expropriated by the government. The international plot against Turkey is also, plainly, not a conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theories, by definition, are untrue, whereas the plots against Turkey are substantiated by overwhelming evidence. Criticisms of Turkey by various international bodies are merely one leg of this evidence. And finally, to suggest that Turkey is regressing is plain nonsense. It might be difficult to breathe in Turkey, but that’s because the air gets thinner as you ascend to the sunlit uplands. It takes time to adjust.  

Of course, all of this is entirely hypothetical.


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