Monday, March 29, 2010


There's the Peter Principle, which guarantees that all incompetence in a hierarchy will find its right place. There's the Dilbert Principle, which assures me that incompetence is rewarded by promotion (the side effect of which is sometimes to remove such incompetence away from places it can be too dangerous for). There's the Software Peter Principle, which tells me about the effect on software of all those latent incompetent qwerties, who deserved to get promoted but were not bombastically incompetent enough. But nothing could have prepared me for the dazzling simplicity of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Their thesis, which won an Ig Nobel award, is fun to read, but if you're looking for a gist, here goes:

  • Incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their own level of skill.
  • Incompetent individuals fail to recognize genuine skill in others.
  • Incompetent individuals fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy.
  • If they can be trained to substantially improve their own skill level, these individuals can recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill.

Put another way, this is all about people who are so dumb that they don't know how dumb they are. This reminds me of the story from a guy about his daughter and her singing. As a toddler, she insisted on singing loudly and clearly with nary a clue about how out-of-tune she was and how terrible it was for the ears of her listeners. He described her as unconsciously incompetent. As her days in school went by, she finally began to realise just how much her singing sucked. She was now consciously incompetent. She then started taking lessons and became a good singer. She now knew that she sang well and her listeners were now far better off. She had become consciously competent. After years of practice and performance, she became an artist of sorts. She had finally become unconsciously competent (People like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane who churned out endless runs of complicated yet masterful notes were in the upper crust of this category). The Dunning-Kruger effect seems to describe all individuals, who, for reasons unknown to quantum physicists and zoologists, appear to be atavistically inclined: they are destined to achieve new nadirs in unconscious incompetence.

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