Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"Idiots Get Confident While the Smart Get Modest"

Old fashioned photo of a boy with a dunce cap on a stool, with handwriting behind - I will not do well in school/But I am smarter than you/Unless you are way smarter/In which case/I will not do well in school
It's called the Dunning-Kruger effect: The lower the scores students received on a test, the more inaccurate their assessment of how they did. As Robyn Williams tells it on The Science Show:

...the students at the bottom end of the bell curve held inflated opinions of their own talents, hugely inflated. In one test of logical reasoning, the lowest quartile of students estimated that their skills would put them above more than 60% of their peers when in fact they had beaten out just 12%....

Even more surprisingly, the Dunning-Kruger effect leads high achievers to doubt themselves, because on the other end of the bell curve the talented students consistently underestimated their performance. Again to the test of logic; those topping the class felt that they were only just beating out three-quarters of their classmates, whereas in reality they had out-performed almost 90% of them.
The latter finding matches up well with my personal experience of what's called "impostor syndrome," wherein a clearly accomplished and intelligent person believes that s/he doesn't deserve to be where s/he is (such as graduate school or in a profession).

All of this also made me think of some other recent research, reported by Susan Perry of MinnPost, that shows athletes, lawyers and test-takers all perform worse when they believe a "superstar" is competing with them. As the Wall Street Journal reported it:
researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of Haifa compared average SAT scores with the average number of students in test-taking venues in all 50 states, and found that students who took the SAT in larger groups did worse. They concluded that the mere knowledge of their competitors — the sight of all of those other students scratching in their answers in the same room — decreased motivation.
So combining all of this, we should conclude that the students who did worse on the SAT because of the competition would think they had done better than they did, right?

Thanks to BoingBoing for the heads up on Dunning and Kruger's work.

1 comment:

Michael Leddy said...

I'm not sure the answer to the last question is a yes. If a competent student feels intimidated and chokes, I'd say that's different from the Dunning-Kruger situation.

Two minds with but ...: I wrote something this afternoon inspired by the Boing Boing post.