You can’t be blamed for the unknown unknowns

Research has shown that most of us suffer from a kind of ego-saving delusion that renders us hopelessly poor at recognising our own incompetencies. For example, people who are incompetent will tend to rate their own performance at a task only slightly lower than their more competent peers. Now Deanna Caputo and David Dunning have suggested there’s a simple explanation for this – we’re bad at judging our own ability they say, because, by definition, we’re ignorant of what we don’t know, or solutions we could have found.

They tested hundreds of students on various tasks, including a word game (Boggle), spotting an artist’s name embedded in his paintings (visual search), and spotting grammatical errors in a passage of text. After completing a task, participants were asked to evaluate their performance twice – first based on the solutions/ mistakes they knew they had identified, and then again after they’d been told about all the solutions/mistakes they’d missed. As the researchers predicted, they found the participants’ self-evaluations were far more accurate after they were given the extra information about the answers they had missed.

This phenomenon will be even more relevant when it comes to the less defined problems of real life, the researchers argued. “For example, it is impossible to catalogue all the solutions to such ill-defined tasks as designing an architecturally significant building, composing a classic country and western song, or writing the poem that resurrects the sonnet…”, the researchers said, “…as a consequence people are never really in a position to know just how well they have done because it is difficult to know all the alternative solutions they could have arrived at”.

Modestly, the researchers concluded by acknowledging that their investigation into this effect might well have been conducted better: “…there is [sic] bound to be some efforts we could have made but could not identify. We concede at this point that we do not know of them”.

Caputo, D. & Dunning, D. (2005). What you don’t know: The role played by errors of omission in imperfect self-assessments. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 41, 488-505.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.