Unskilled and unaware


Here’s a bit of Monday afternoon/Tuesday morning reading for you: Why the unskilled are unaware: Further explorations of (absent) self-insight among the incompetent.

While not a “new report”, as we journalists are wont to call anything we copy-and-paste, it helps explain the philosopher Bertrand Russell’s 1951 statement that one “of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.”

The authors of this American 2006 study note that “those most confident in their level of expertise and skill are not necessarily those who should be. Surveys of the psychological literature suggest that perception of skill is often only modestly correlated with actual level of performance, a pattern found not only in the laboratory but also in the classroom, health clinic, and the workplace…”

Business Day columnist Jabulani Sikhakhane last week made reference to the report in a column about an appointment at Nedbank – that in his view demonstrated the second part of Russell’s thesis – though one can easily apply it to government failure and ongoing service delivery protests.

Indeed, it strongly reminds of Rita Mae Brown’s definition of insanity – often misattributed to various people, including Albert Einstein and Mark Twain, which “is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

The reports’ authors aver that part of why the dramatic overestimation demonstrated by poor performers is so fascinating is precisely because they show dramatic overconfidence on tasks about which they have likely received substantial feedback in the past.

“While this issue is beyond the scope of the present manuscript, we remain fascinated by the question of why it is that poor performers do not give accurate performance evaluations on familiar tasks. It seems that poor performers do not learn from feedback suggesting a need to improve.”

“Hacker, Bol, Horgan, and Rakow (2000) provided direct evidence for this failure to learn from feedback when they tracked students during a semester-long class. As time went on, good students became more accurate in predicting how they would do on future exams. The poorest performers did not— showing no recognition, despite clear and repeated feedback, that they were doing badly.

“If one cannot rely on life experience to teach people about their deficits, how are people to gain self-insight?”