We have to deal with them all the time. We could even be one of them unknowingly.
Who am I referring to? Those inflicted with the Better-Than-Average Syndrome, or Illusory superiority. The syndrome has three elements:
- The person is incompetent by all objective assessment
- The person is completely unaware of / impervious to (1),
- The person’s self-perception doesn’t stop at (2), he actually believes to be above average regarding his skills set.
A study by Kruger & Dunning from Cornell University ‘s Department of Psychology concluded – assuming that both weren’t overestimating their own competence- that a large number of the self-described “above average” individuals were in fact below average in those areas they thought they excelled at, as they were simply unaware of their incompetence.
The problem is compounded when the incompetent-unaware, who cannot assess their own skill levels, are put in charge – often by other siblings – of assessing other people’s skills. Illusory competence is not only happily self-sustainable, it can have a multiplying effect, and spawn an endless stream of IT horror stories down the road.
But where are the real above-average, competent ones? Well, they are there, and…they tend to underestimate their abilities. They assume than the incompetent ones are at least as qualified as themselves (in the absence of evidence to the contrary), a variant of the false-consensus effect.
Between the two extremes, there are those aware of their incompetence, and among them, those taking active steps to remedy that. Being aware of one’s incompetence is A Good Thing. It means that the person can still become better at what he does, should he choose to do so. Those who choose not to, and love the smell of mediocrity in the morning…well…let’s wish them luck and move on.
Interestingly enough, the Dunning–Kruger effect hasn’t been observed in other cultures as much as in the Western world. East-Asians for example tend to underestimate their skills and at the same time strive to constantly improve their abilities.
Where in these categories do we belong? Well, after years and years of working in IT, if we can still find a mind-blowing number of things we still don’t know or where we feel we need to improve, we have nothing to worry about. We are either underestimating our abilities, or we are constantly trying to become better at our jobs.
This article is also available at JavaLobby.