Too stupid to know they're stupid

The Anosognosic’s Dilemma:  Some people are so stupid they don’t know they’re stupid. The New York Times’ Opinionator Blog focuses on research by David Dunning, a Cornell social psychology professor and his graduate student Justin Kruger.

Errol Morris interviews Dunning, who says, “If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent.”

DAVID DUNNING: If you knew it, you’d say, “Wait a minute. The decision I just made does not make much sense. I had better go and get some independent advice.” But when you’re incompetent, the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is. In logical reasoning, in parenting, in management, problem solving, the skills you use to produce the right answer are exactly the same skills you use to evaluate the answer. And so we went on to see if this could possibly be true in many other areas. And to our astonishment, it was very, very true.

College students who were doing badly in grammar, didn’t know it, Dunning found in his research. You’d think someone taking a class would get feedback from the instructor. Are they not being told their grammar is poor? Or are they very good at not hearing what they don’t want to hear?

Dunning praises Donald Rumsfeld’s ruminations on “unknown unknowns,” the stuff you don’t know that you don’t know. Morris seems incapable of crediting Rumsfeld with insight. It’s kind of funny to watch him struggle to deny that Rumsfeld was on to something.

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  1. Devilbunny says:

    Wow. I thought you were joking about Rumsfeld until I read that. He really seems to have a need to believe that his political opponents are incapable of insightful thought on any subject.

  2. I’m reminded of that great treatise on humanity, “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure”:

    Bill: “So-crates: The only true wisdom lies in knowing that you know nothing.”

    Ted: “Well that’s us!”

    This is the issue I run into in my 8th grade students constantly. They’re so used to being passed along without learning the basic skills that they don’t know where their deficiencies are. I recall observing the work of a very intelligent student. I asked her point blank: “The shirt costs $40, you have a 10% off coupon, and now it costs $4000?” to which she replied “That’s what the calculator said.”

    As a teacher or even simply a human being, one is constantly bombarded by confidence in things that are wrong. There is no way that you can stop and correct every single one. As biological organisms, we become accustomed to things that are commonplace, so they become easy to ignore.

    Only if there is a concerted effort by every teacher to correct mistakes can there be any hope of correction. If some teachers are not making an effort to correct, then those who are will quickly be overwhelmed. This, of course, presupposes that all teachers are capable of recognizing and dealing with proper and improper reasoning. That is a line of questioning down which a person may successfully emerge with either their sanity or liver intact, but not both.

  3. As the quote from Socrates indicates, being able to recognize your blindspots is indeed the beginning of true wisdom. I’m not sure, then, that I agree with the premise of the post. While I’d not be so foolish as to call myself truly wise, there are many areas of my life, including pedagogy, in which I recognize that I need further feedback and development to become more competent. Many sensible people are able to pinpoint these in their own lives; we pay a mechanic to fix our car because we are sure s/he will do a better job, or trust a doctor’s opinion on what is ailing the body.

    Perhaps the problem is not mere incompetence, but (willful) ignorance.

  4. I find a lot of students are unable to do “self-checks,” even when I explain how and recommend they do them. For example: is that measurement you just got “reasonable” based on what you know?

    I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had students use the “inch” side of the measuring tape (I require all measurements to be SI) and be totally unaware of it – they apparently do not know what an “inch” versus a “centimeter” looks like. Or they don’t care. Or something.

  5. Combine this phenomenon with students’ growing sense of entitlement, and the results are pretty ugly. At the university level, this can include some extremely nasty teaching evaluations.

  6. Independent George says:

    The irony of the Rumsfeld section is that the entire idea here is about cognitive blindspots.

  7. Allison says:

    I had the same inability to recognize my own inadequacies in college. Partly, it came from not hearing what was said–but that’s because it was *never said directly or bluntly*.

    Students who have been in school for 12 years aren’t going to suddenly understand why what worked for them for 12 years isn’t working now. They aren’t going to understand that they don’t know how to write, or compute, or study. They need EXPLICIT instruction. And I’ve got sympathy for the entitlement they feel, too: for 12 years, they played by the rules, and NOW the rules change, and now you tell me I didn’t learn anything? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot!

    Just as experts think differently than novices, experts SPEAK differently too. They don’t tell novices what novices are missing. They couch it in terms that only experts would get.

    Some of it is attempting to be nice, and being afraid of hurting someone. But you aren’t being cruel to a student if you say “you are missing basic skills.” You need to be THAT BLUNT or they won’t know. And just saying that isn’t enough–you will need to tell them WHAT skills they are missing, AND HOW TO GET THEM.

    Some of the miscommunication is just because experts don’t realize what the novices don’t know. They think saying “your grammar is weak” is somehow going to help a novice learn grammar. But it isn’t. For people who don’t know how to test themselves, telling them to practice test taking doesn’t help, either. They need to be shown how to do it, step by step.

  8. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Allison – I agree with you for the most part, and I’ve done the best I can with my less-skilled undergrads to explain to them that they hath been deceived about the extent of their prowess. BUT…

    Let’s say that a student writes a college paper that demonstrates a 5th grade writing level (maybe… 5th graders tend to still be at least trying to get grammar right). This scenario is far from the fantastic.

    Let’s say the professor says, bluntly, “You have no basic writing skills. Your teachers have lied to you for 8 years. You need to learn to write in complete sentences, to have your verbs and subjects agree, to learn how to use punctuation, to learn to keep a constant subject in a sentence, to develop the ability to craft a persuasive argument that isn’t mere assertion, and to expand your vocabulary by at least 8,000 words.”

    What else is the professor supposed to tell the student? Should she tell him to go to the University Writing Center, where the blind lead the blind for maybe an hour or two a week? You say that the professor needs to tell the student HOW TO GET the skills, but where does a 20-year old functional illiterate get reading skills on a college campus?

    Remedial classes? Is that our answer? These skills take YEARS to develop — years of practice and sweat and frustration. A remedial comp class is a band-aid on a sucking chest wound.

    I disagree that this is about stupidity — it’s about ignorance. But ignorance takes time to correct. If a college spent all the time needed to correct this sort of lapse, there wouldn’t be any more time for teaching the sorts of things that a college is supposed to teach.

    We can push the hypo back to high school, too, with more or less the same results.


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