Monday, June 28, 2010

American Idol and People that Can't Sing At All Or How Could You Possibly Not Know?

I've noticed a strange phenomena since beginning work here at school.

I've noticed that many of the sign language interpreters that I meet are incredibly unsure of their ability to sign. I mean, really. These are folks who have had extensive training in ASL and work as interpreters full time. They work at one of the finest colleges for the Deaf in the world, and have access to a large number of native signers. I'm no expert, but these people are very, very, good at what they do. But it is not unusual for an interpreter will refuse to sign a waiver so we can videotape a presentation that includes him/her working. As a beginning student of ASL, I wonder: If this person who uses ASL as a key part of his/her daily work, who's ability to sign is a core competency thinks his/her signing sucks, how will I EVER learn to sign even a little bit? All this self-doubt seemed phony to me, or at least disingenuous.

On the other hand, sometimes I am asked to review students' portfolios. And there are cases (not often, thank goodness!) where the portfolio is TERRIBLE and the student is completely oblivious to this. How can someone be so completely out of touch with reality?

Another example: Over the years I've been seriously dismayed when I have read the self-assessments of some of the people that worked for me. Frequently my weakest performers will score themselves high on their self- assessments. And more than once, the person has been very upset at my appraisal of their performance, telling me that they have never received a negative evaluation before. How can this be? Did the person think they could bully me into a better score? Or are they some kind of egomaniac?

Well, now I know. It's something called The Dunning-Kruger Effect. According to Wikipedia, that authority on everything, Dunning-Kruger effect is "a cognitive bias in which people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.They hypothesized that with a typical skill which humans may possess in greater or lesser degree,

  1. Incompetent* individuals tend to overestimate their own level of skill.
  2. Incompetent individuals fail to recognize genuine skill in others.
  3. Incompetent individuals fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy."
So people who are actually unskilled think they are terrific, and people who are very skilled underestimate their own performance. And, to make matters worse, the incompetent people are unable to recognize competence. So they won't learn from just observing competence.

Another important point that Dunning and Kruger make is that people rarely receive negative feedback. And if they do, for it to be useful,  they have to understand WHY the failure happened.

So how do we mitigate against this type of bias that we are all subject to? If we don't clearly understand our strengths and weaknesses, it will be difficult to evaluate risk on projects, plan any kind of self-improvement activity, or in general, understand reality. I think there are two ways we can do this.

Dunning and Kruger suggest that, "If ... people... can be trained to substantially improve their own skill level, these individuals can recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill."  Well, duh! I don't know if this is a very useful observation, if we are interested in self-evaluation strategies to improve in domains where one isn't a top level performer.

But a second point by Dunning and Kruger is more helpful. They suggest that people seldom receive negative feedback about their skills and abilities. But even with negative feedback, people need to understand WHY the failure is a failure. In other words, smart feedback is essential.

This article has made me rethink how I going about performance reviews for my team. Last year, I was frustrated by the difference between my evaluations and the individual's self-evaluations. My response this year was to bring people together to write a rubric that would describe behaviors in various levels of performance. Now I'm thinking that maybe that's not a good way to go about it, because my weakest performers are not going to be able to recognize what is the desired behaviors.  Instead I am going to need to think of a way to give everyone smart feedback, and at multiple points during the year. This is going to be challenging!

In the process of writing this blog article, I came across two interesting sources that you might want to check out.

The first article was in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology called "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments" by Justin Kruger and David Dunning. This reports on the research that is the basis for what we know of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

The second was a blog called Finch, written by Francisco Inchauste. He is a designer, and based on what I see in his blog, a good one! You can check out his article here. I really enjoyed his blog and wish he would write more.

* Kruger and Dunning say this about the word "incompetent": "...We think of incompetence as a mater of degree and not one of absolutes. There is no categorical bright line that separates 'competent' individuals from 'incompetent' ones.  Thus, when we speak of 'incompetent' individuals we mean people who are less competent than their peers.  Second, we have focused our analysis on the incompetence individuals display in specific domains. We make no claim that they would be incompetent in any other domains, although many a colleague has pulled us aside to tell us a tale of a person they know is is 'domain-general' incompetent.  Those people may exist, but they are not the focus of this research."


Adam Logan said...

I have noticed this phenomenon as well, in myself, in several friends as well. I think less of my abilities than I should give myself credit for.

It seems to me that the more you learn about something, the more you realize how much you do not know and awareness of others with remarkable standout talents grows as well.

I think another thing that exaggerates this phenomenon here in the U.S. is the #1 mentality that pervades media and our culture. Placing 2nd in a competition is nowhere near as prestigious as winning 1st place. You might as well have come in 55th place. 1st place earns you recognition and all others fade immediately into obscurity.

Great topic. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

I got here by the same news story Dunning found about the "not so smart" bank robber. Many new people writing about it these days. There is much need for self reflection on this subject. Of course, if you are in the bottom 20th percentile, you already know it all. Wink wink.

I agree with Adam above, with one exception. In our current culture, everyone gets a trophy whether you are 1st or 55th. There is no reason to improve. Just show up, and you get the reward. Overestimating your skill set is a much bigger issue in the US. Europe and Asia have yet to catch up.

Smart feedback, and often, is key to getting marginal people more skillful or at least more efficient. Most get feedback only once a year. If it is negative, the person wonders why no one said anything all year. Therefore, it is only a one time event, and purged.

Thank you for sharing your insights.

Chris said...

So you did read my self-assessments after all:-)

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