Unskilled and unaware of it?


In a widely cited, and provocatively titled, article in 1999, now approaching 1,400 citations on scholar google, Kruger and Dunning seemed to provide evidence that “difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments”. In other words, the less skilled (that’s what the authors really meant to say, alas a provocative title tends to sell) were argued, on average, to be more unaware of the absolute and relative quality of their performance. In fact, the less people were skilled the more they seemed “miscalibrated”.

In an earlier article, Krajc and yours truly have provided in response a simple model and some exploratory computational exercises that suggested that the less skilled may simply face a more complicated signal extraction problem. Our argument hinged on the distribution of skills in the environments that were typically studied being highly asymmetric, often resembling J – shaped distributions. Simply put, it is easy for the A++ student to figure out where s/he stands but much more difficult for those ranked towards the bottom of the class.

In an article just published, Ryvkin, Krajc and yours truly provide evidence in favor of a conjecture formulated in the earlier article: that with fairly little feedback self-assessment biases can be overcome. There was certainly a distinct literature on calibration that suggested that much (e.g., Juslin, Winman, & Olsson 2000 or Koehler 1996 – see here and here). There was, however, also some evidence that suggested otherwise (reviewed in our just published article.)

We hence set out to study whether, and to what extent, the difficulties of the less skilled in recognizing their own incompetence (largely, overconfidence) can be reduced by feedback. We report the results of two studies, one in a natural setting of a two-months graduate orientation and screening semester (and there particularly the micro-economics course by instructors not part of the research team), and another in the same environment but using tasks and stimuli materials that were better under our control. We document initially the same strong miscalibration that Kruger and Dunning also documented but also show that over the course of the two months this miscalibration almost completely disappears with the notable exception of those at the very bottom of the skills distribution and there only for their relative self-assessment which might provide support for the conjecture of Krajc & Ortmann (JoEP 2008; for reference see above) or self-image (e.g., Koeszegi 2006).

So, are the less skilled doomed to be unaware? It seems, no, not really. Learning goes a long way. Which should make us happy. But, of course, it all depends (on the strength and type of feedback, for example.)

26 Responses to "Unskilled and unaware of it?"
  1. I ought to agree with Kruger and Dunning’s statement. As long as the unskilled are unaware of their lack of skills and qualities they will not try to obtain the necessary skills. Not everybody may gasp the concept that the reason they are jobless or not being promoted is because they do not possess of the skills required. In short, their lack of skills and vision, prohibit them from seeing their own lack of skills.

    • I agree. Not everyone knows why they are unskilled and jobless. And the blame can’t be entirely theirs. Sometimes it can be on their upbringing or background and due to that fact it can impact their way of thinking only inside the box. Due the Economy not everyone can afford an education and this should be better seen to in that everyone should have an education to further more in life.

  2. People without the knowledge and skills, or a lack there of, might not know which skills to improve and how they should be improved. This could also be caused by a lack of education, thus people should start at educational level by working on the necessary skills. With better education and skills development, the level of jobless people might go down.

  3. Certain skills and abilities come naturally to some individuals where as others need to be taught. It has become increasingly more important to develop skills such as interpersonal skills. Knowing the theory of a business but not being able to interact effectively with the people in it is a major hindrance. Many people don’t realize their inability to perform a task due to the fact that they have never been taught the right way or even any way. The phrase ignorance is bliss may be true for the person who is ignorant but can cause much frustration for those working with him/her and also as stated by Ansuri be the reason why the person is jobless or not being promoted.
    I agree with Tanja that people should already at educational level be taught the necessary skills in order to become an effective employee and be assessed regularly to see in which areas they are lacking so that they can become aware and improve.

  4. I have to agree with Kruger and Dunning’s statement as it would seem difficult to recognize and maybe try to improve one’s incompetence when they are not even aware of it. Perhaps this issue may go back to high school institutions which just put kids out without a proper briefing on how life works. Perhaps if the these kids were educated on the skills required for the career path they intend to follow they would not make the mistake of acquiring the wrong skills and thinking they were on the path to success. Regardless it should not be an excuse to stay in ignorance, people should always seek professional advise on these things.

    • In any case, the point is that we provide evidence under fairly controlled conditions that most people learn quickly to calibrate properly. I.e., that they become aware of their lack of their skill if the signal extraction problem is not too difficult.

  5. This article eventually boils down to education and vision. The more you are educated, the more sharper you become and the more knowledge you attain the better skilled a person will be. People who are skilled tend to know what weaknesses they have and use the opportunity to attain more knowledge in it to sharpen their intelligence. In some way people who are unskilled need help in identifying core skill that they may be able to master in when that happens, poverty decrease and unemployment increases.

  6. Perhaps the most important realization that an individual can make in their quest for personal growth is that there is no single formula that defines the path to personal success. As human we have different vision and goals.ost of the times our background is what is likely to make us realise our skills and capabilities. for example on might have a rich family and never worry about what they personally want to do because they know they have what they need for everyday survival as parents provide and some day they will inherit what their parents worked for. This leaves the young generation unaware of their skills however working on the opportunities their parents worked on. on the other hand coming from a poor background, children strive to work hard and be independent so that they can change the situations at their homes. Parents do not choose for them which field to go into however their free to make their own choices and advance on their skills. My conclusion is that individuals sometimes do not set their own vision and goals but are set by parents. sometimes children may not like the particular field parents choose for them which will make them unproductive. And when laziness kicks in its the end of opportunities.

  7. Very interesting article to read.

    In all essence, when one thinks about it, it is relatively obvious that the less knowledge one has about something the less responsive they would be towards the situation; to what extent would there be no response is the concern and I appreciate the study that was done to figure this out.

    This article has definitely enlightened me to idiocy of ignorance. When one does not know which skills they have or lack, it cannot be expected from them to even try improve them.

    Good read.

  8. Sometimes people may seem as though they are unaware of the skills which they lack, however, they could just be comfortable with where they are in their lives. Certain people aim to achieve that which they feel is “good enough” and in turn do not attain new skills. This results in people being unskilled in several fields as the years progress.
    Being unskilled and unaware of it is a dangerous thing as it prevents growth.

  9. The blog post has a lot of proof and references to back the statement. Although I agree to some extent, it is a bold generalization to make. I feel majority people who are unskilled do realise it, but are ignorant to the fact,but would try to become skilled if the right opportunities came their way. Thanks for the interesting blog

  10. The article contains a lot of proof and references to back the statement. Although I agree to some extent, it is a bold statement to make. I’m sure many people realise that they are unskilled, i just think many are ignorant towards facing the truth, and would try and obtain the necessary skills if the opportunities came along. thanks for the interesting article.

  11. The article is based on one side and all it’s sources support it based on the side that people who are unskilled are unaware of it. on the point that states :it is easy for the A++ student to figure out where s/he stands but much more difficult for those ranked towards the bottom of the class. this is pure not true in my believe because the are different ways to measure skills but according to this article it is only taken academically. As Morongwa Tshetlo as commented “Sometimes people may seem as though they are unaware of the skills which they lack, however, they could just be comfortable with where they are in their lives” not what is concerted “good” in the environment that they live in.

  12. Very good blog. The conclusion only supports the idea that education and knowledge is vital; a person cannot realize their full potential in a task without the knowledge to do so. I believe that an unskilled person will remain blinded that he/she is unskillful until someone gives them the feedback they need to realize that they are unskillful, however i believe that everyone is skillful but don’t always see it and that they only need the knowledge to become more skillful. Thank you.

  13. The relation between those who are unskilled and not being able to assess their potential truly is evident. I think the study is very true and applicable to all unskilled people. It is obvious that an unskilled person would not be able to rank him or herself in relation to their competence in the industry ,as you remarked Marelize. Feedback should thus be noted as very important in a business.

  14. Skilled labour is a vital part of certain markets and is the driving force to many production companies etc. The unskilled labourer and their unawareness thereof could be detrimental to the successful daily operations of a business and so forth. Moreover, their incompetence to acquire certain skills essential to fulfill a particular job may make it difficult for the labourers to secure a job thus it only seems fitting that they partake in the necessary training and courses essential to the securing of a job.

  15. When we fail to recognize and acknowledge our shortcomings,we tend to overstate the abilities and skills we possess and Kruger and Dunning make a valid point on that notion but this does not apply to everyone because other people do recognize their failures and work on improving that as Derek rightfully pointed that.I believe that this problem of not recognising our failures can be overcome by simply empowering ourselves with the necessary skills required in our field of work and studies..Furthermore,I believe that self introspection will go a long way in eliminating this problem.As stated above constructive feedback is also a strong tool that can be used to alleviate this incompetence as people will be able to go back on their failures and take the feedback given and look on the positive aspects.With that being said,I believe there is gaps in the blog as various factors contributing to not being able to recognize failures such as disadvantaged backgrounds and not having means financially to empower oneself.

  16. This post is very interesting. I agree with it, although I think it maybe a generalization. Sometimes, especially if the people who are unskilled are experienced, they are blinded by their own skill level. Thus nothing for them to measure it against. In creating awareness of low skill levels one should be careful not to undermine self-confidence totally as this could be detrimental to productivity.

  17. This post is interesting in a way that it opened my eyes to see this in a different way. My previous thought on this matter was that those who are unskilled were aware of the fact that they are unskilled but just knew that they did not have the resources to improve their performance capabilities therefore making them not do anything about. I now come to think that perhaps they feel as if they doing the most they can and that they cant get any better, which is incorrect. There are ways to improve their situations but perhaps they are just not aware of such.

  18. This is an interesting read, an eye opener… most of the unskilled lack confidence in themselves as they feel they don’t have what it takes (comparing themselves to the skilled), this is where it all begins, there is a saying “the only disability in life is a bad attitude”, if you don’t believe you can then you never will. Recognize where you lack and work on improving it until you get to where you need to be.

  19. Looking at the working and business environment, people tend to realize what they are up against. I say thank you to the working place development skills that some manager provide for their employees to develop their working skills. Although some people may need to be given a push to develop their skills but as Andreas Ortmann quoted that “difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments”. What do people decide to do when they realize that they are incompetent, what is the personal step that they decide to take in order to remove themselves from their comfort zone. Some people may decide to do nothing after receiving feedback from self assessment, question is why? while some will be motivated enough to react on that little feedback they receive, question is what motivates them? Our economy depends on our competency in order to grow and do things better in this world.

  20. This blog gives insight as to why people in their current jobs are struggling to keep abreast with the forever changing business world. The business world is complex and it is imperative that current employees’ are aware of any change that may, directly or indirectly affect the current business that they are working at. To continue excelling as an employer (and points which have been mentioned above), one must identify the skills need to handle their work load. By acquiring these skills, employees should be able to handle their work load and have more confidence in their ability to achieve the business’s goals and objectives.

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