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Ignorant People Might Actually Be Too Ignorant to Know It

cogdog, Flickr

Looks like asking some people, “Are you stupid or what?” might be pointless. According to new research, they may in fact be too incompetent to answer honestly. That might go for you, too.

Cornell University psychologist David Dunning says humans find it “intrinsically difficult to get a sense of what we don’t know.” So even when someone lacks competence in logical reasoning, emotional intelligence or humor, that person will still believe their skills are above-average.

Dunning and his colleague, Justin Kruger from New York University, administered a series of tests to volunteers, and later asked them how they thought they’d done. These tests included asking participants to rate the funniness of jokes, the correctness of grammar, and their own performance in a game of chess.

The researchers found that people who actually scored well did express higher confidence in their test results than those who didn’t, but only marginally so — in fact, almost everyone thought they’d done better than average. Even when scientists offered volunteers a $100 reward if they could rate themselves accurately, most couldn’t, revealing that a total lack of expertise could render people unable to recognize their own deficiencies.

Dunning feels people’s inability to assess their own knowledge is the cause of many of society’s ills, including the fact that a wide swath of people stubbornly deny the science behind climate change.

“Many people don’t have training in science, and so they may very well misunderstand [it],” Dunning said. “But because they don’t have the knowledge to evaluate it, they don’t realize how off their evaluations might be.”


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