One of my favorite quotes is from a poem by William Butler Yeats, who wrote that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Science has confirmed the observation, at least with respect to the “worst,” and to the extent that “best” and “worst” refer to intellectual acuity.
In 1999, David Dunning and Justin Kruger of the department of psychology at Cornell University conducted a fascinating study after reading about a man named McArthur Wheeler. Wheeler robbed two banks after covering his face with lemon juice in the mistaken belief that, because lemon juice is usable as invisible ink, it would prevent his face from being recorded on surveillance cameras.
Earlier studies had suggested that what might delicately be termed “ignorance of performance standards” accounts for a substantial amount of incorrect self-assessment of competence. In other words–as the Facebook meme has it–stupid people are too stupid to recognize their stupidity.
Dunning and Kruger found that, for a given skill, incompetent people will:
- fail to recognize their own lack of skill
- fail to recognize the extent of their inadequacy
- fail to recognize genuine skill in others
- will only recognize and acknowledge their own lack of skill after they are exposed to training for that skill
According to Dunning, “If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent.… [T]he skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.”
According to Wikipedia (yes, I know–I don’t let my students cite to Wikipedia, but it’s convenient and generally, albeit not always, accurate):
Dunning and Kruger set out to test these hypotheses on Cornell undergraduates in psychology courses. In a series of studies, they examined subject self-assessment of logical reasoning skills, grammatical skills, and humor. After being shown their test scores, the subjects were asked to estimate their own rank. The competent group estimated their rank accurately, while the incompetent group overestimated theirs.
Across four studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd.
(This definitely explains most of the students who come in to complain about their grades….but I digress.)
How did Yeats put it? Those who know the least are those with the most “passionate intensity.”
The evidence is everywhere. Just look at Congress, or the Indiana General Assembly.
Or the “Y’all Qaeda” standoff in Oregon…