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15 Nov 2010

Is Confidence an Indicator of Incompetence?

“In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” –Bertrand Russell, from his essay ‘The Triumph of Stupidity’, published in 1933.

Professors Justin Kruger and David Dunning provide supporting research. Their findings are categorically called the Dunning-Kruger Effect (DKE). In my earlier post about lying, we saw liars using confidence to encourage lies to take hold. Since confidence is a feeling that taps into our security needs, it naturally attracts us. Thus, a mother’s embrace is to a child what confidence is to an adult.

It seems natural though that those who are most competent should have the most confidence; but why does DKE claim the opposite? The incompetent don’t really know what they don’t know.

Imagine two generals. One sends his scouts out and finds no enemy forces. Another does the same and finds a force twice his size. Which general is going to feel more confident about his situation, the one with no enemy around or the one with? However, we then find out that the first general only sent his scouts out five miles while the second fifty miles. Which now? The answer doesn’t change because the first general didn’t know his scouts should have gone out fifty miles.

However, measuring competency isn’t as easy as measuring how far scouts ventured. The potential problems that concern the competent are staging far beyond a horizon the incompetent can’t see or don’t know exists. Thus, ignorance is not only blissful but confident.

Want proof? Next time you’re before a group of CEO’s ask how many of them believe their earnings growth over the last year is in the lower half of the group? You’ll get a number far less than 50% . . . maybe even 25%.

Related link: Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence

2 Responses

  1. Quoting: “The incompetent don’t really know what they don’t know.” Yes, it could be incompetence as the root problem. I would hope that people associated with such individuals would help them understand their lack of preparation. My larger concern is with the person at the other end of this spectrum: the person who really is quite competent but unable to take a stand, defend a decision. IF this person has considered (http://johncbennettjr.com ) the situation carefully, reached a decision after “testing” it with colleagues, AND acknowledged the weaker part(s) of the model and/or procedure used (rarely, except in textbooks, does the perfect model and correct procedure ever exist), that person is competent to make the decision: BECAUSE SHE/HE KNOWS THE LIMITATIONS, THE WEAKER POINTS!! That person moves ahead with an eye to what to watch for. The competent person who won’t make a decision is either paralyzed bt the fear of mistakes or inexperienced in making appropriately qualified decisions.

    1. Mike Lehr


      You’re very right to be concerned about the individuals who are competent but not resolute. Many times it’s just inexperience in presenting ideas confidently, knowing that just because you see a weakness in your idea doesn’t mean others do so. It’s similar to public speaking in this way. Standard advice is don’t let on to when you make a mistake, just carry forward.

      In regard to those who are incompetent but very confident, yes, ideally it would be great for others to help them understand. The problem is that they are frequently fired by that person or seen as impolite and critical. Politics comes into play too. It’s hard to express someone’s incompetence when a manager or executive has selected that person for the job. Too many factors encumber honest feedback.

      Still, your thoughts work for me.


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