Are Stupid People More Confident?

We've all heard about the supposed relationship between confidence and knowledge - but is it true? Two researchers think they've found the answer.

Learn more about human nature at HowStuffWorks


Hey, BrainStuff, it’s me, Ben. If you’re like most people, you think you’re very good at some things, and are able to admit you’re less good at others.

You probably think you’re superbly talented in one or two areas - and hey, you might be right. You try to be honest with yourself about your strong points and your weak ones. You likely shake your head in pity at people you see as, well, stupid. “Why do they keep dumbing everywhere?” you ask yourself, “Why don’t they understand that they’re bad at doing stuff?

There is an answer, but you might not like it. And this answer doesn’t just apply to people you think of as “dumb”. It applies to everyone on Earth… including you and me.

It’s not a matter of intelligence, necessarily– a difficult thing to measure– but it is related to “competence”, the ability to do something well.

In 1999 a psychologist named David Dunning and his grad assistant Justin Kruger tested a group of students in several categories: “the ability to think logically, to write grammatically, and to spot funny jokes”. They also asked the students to rate their skills in these categories. That’s when they noticed something weird.

The people scoring below average on these tests weren’t just incompetent in these categories – they also didn’t know they were incompetent. And here’s the kicker: the less competent they were, the MORE competent they ranked themselves.

This is a phenomenon called “illusory superiority” (which sounds like the name of a Radiohead B-Side, but isn’t, as far as we know). Instead, this is a cognitive bias wherein people tend to rate their own abilities as above-average. You know, like how everyone’s thinks they’re a good driver or believes they have a great sense of humor. Multiple studies have proven this effect in everything from firearms to college debates and med students’ opinions of their interviewing skills.

It doesn’t seem to matter what specific skill we’re talking about – the less a person knows about it, the more likely they are to overestimate their knowledge.

While Dunning and Kruger popularized this effect in modern society, they weren’t the first people to notice the relationship between confidence, modesty and skill. Philosophers throughout the ages have contemplated this idea, like Bertrand Russell, who famously wrote “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”

And here’s another weird thing. People with actual competency are likely to actually underestimate their abilities. Researchers believe this modesty comes because competent people are more aware of how much they don’t actually know, as well as their field in general. They also consistently overestimate the performance ability of others.

It all goes back to one primary thing – metacognition. Metacognition is the ability to be aware of and understand your own thought process. In other words, the ability to think about how you think.

People tend to evaluate themselves through what Dunning and Kruger call a “top-down” approach. Instead of objectively measuring their performance, people start with their preconceived notions of their skill and use that belief to evaluate their performance.

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