Home
Recently I was wondering what it feels like to be unaware of your own incompetence. This led my frail mind to the disturbing realization that incompetence probably feels exactly the same as whatever I was feeling when I was pondering the question. Studies show that incompetent people don't know they are incompetent. Apparently incompetence feels exactly like competence. Uh-oh.

I have always assumed that my thoughts and opinions are correct about 80% of the time. That means a troubling 20% of my thoughts are batshit stupid and I am blissfully aware. Or is it worse than that? I have no basis for assuming I'm right 80% of the time. My estimate is based on a feeling, and feelings are not reasons.

Imagine you're a detective, and you have to solve the case of how incompetent you are. What evidence can you find to support the assumption you have about your own incompetence?

You could start the investigation by asking yourself what sort of people generally agree with you. Are they toothless hillbillies or Nobel Prize winners? I generally align my opinions with the consensus of experts, and I would expect the consensus of experts to be wrong about 20% of the time. But wait. . . I have no objective way to know if experts are usually right. All I know is that if feels that way, and feelings are not reasons.

I can look at my educational background, and my scores on standardized tests, but tests only compare me to the competence of other people in a limited and artificial way. Good SAT scores might not predict who can, for example, bake the best pie, or buy a new car at the best price. And since I don't know how competent the average person is, it doesn't help me to know I'm more or less competent than the average. Am I only slightly more competent than people who are wrong most of the time?

I could look at the success I've had over my lifetime as a gauge of competence. Smart decisions should lead to better outcomes. But my observation is that all success is born of hard work and luck. One needs a minimum level of competence, but effort and good fortune seem to make the difference once you're above the minimum. I became a famous cartoonist without much in the way of art skills, so apparently the minimum competence requirement for my field was quite low, whereas the luck requirement was sky high. When I launched Dilbert, the world was simply ready for a common employee's irreverent view of the workplace. The comics I drew were nothing more than my autobiography. If I had been a dancer turned cartoonist, my comic never would have been published.

When I blog, dozens of thoughtful people disagree with just about every paragraph I write. Most of you haven't had the joy of being publicly judged for your mental competence each and every day. It's a fascinating experience, and humbling in a healthy way. Luckily for me, my ego died years ago, so I don't mind being called an idiot by people who might be idiots themselves, or possibly geniuses. None of us can be certain which team we're on.

I also wonder why being awake is considered the preferred state of awareness compared to dreaming. We assume our waking lives are something approximating "real" and our dreams are fake. But that worldview assumes we can judge our own competence, which we know we cannot. By that I mean we assume our daytime perceptions are recording something about the universe that is mostly true and accurate, while our dreams are mostly random nonsense. But objectively, we have no evidence to support that view. Being awake just feels more legitimate and real, and feelings are not reasons.

Everyone reading this blog believes that he or she is right, and competent, most of the time. On what do you base your opinion of your own competence?
 
Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  +89
  • Print
  • Share
  • Share:

Comments

Sort By:
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 26, 2012
great to see 2 trolls going at it.
 
 
Mar 26, 2012
I often think of this about myself in the opposite way. I know I am an idiot. BUT, Catch-22 seems to apply (both in the way I "see" it and in the way you see it). How stupid can I actually be if I realize (and admit with regret) that I am stupid?
 
 
Mar 23, 2012
This is actually something I think about a lot. I've actually prided myself in being acutely aware of my areas of competence vs. areas of incompetence. This understanding has been challenged by a new job at a much higher level than other jobs I'd had previously. It turns out that there are a handful of things I previously thought myself competent, I'm incompetence, and other things where I thought I were incompetent, I'm actually quite good at, now that I have more practice.

The biggest area I question now is how good of a judge of my own abilities I am. I honestly no longer know.
 
 
Mar 22, 2012
a. What's wrong with toothless hillbillies?
b. "Apparently incompetence feels exactly like competence. Uh-oh."
Yes: isn't this is why many people have to be told when to stop driving? or to find a less demanding job? why performance evaluations are a good idea, in principle?
c. "By that I mean we assume our daytime perceptions are recording something about the universe that is mostly true and accurate, while our dreams are mostly random nonsense. But objectively, we have no evidence to support that view. Being awake just feels more legitimate and real, and feelings are not reasons." In the day, objectively, yes we do get lots of feedback from other people and the environment, and that helps fine-tune what we estimate--with a high degree of probability--to be true. Those night experiences--hard to triangulate on.
 
 
Mar 18, 2012
There's something to be said bout the old saying "ignorance is bliss" If you don't believe me I have a brother in law for you to meet. He can't do jack sh!t and completely clueless. I'm serious. He can't even lie right and by that I mean within his lies most of the time he tells on himself without knowing he's doing it. Yet he seems to be one of the most unaware and happiest people I know.
 
 
Mar 15, 2012
I have no "justified true belief" that I'm competent: I merely have an absence of reasons to think I'm incompetent.

Karl Popper, represent.
 
 
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 14, 2012
I have Asperger's, so at least I *know* I'm unaware of my own incompetence, at least in social skills. I outsmart that by letting competent people tell me when I am and am not behaving competently. Uh, wait ... how do I know *they're* competent ...?

... D'oh!
 
 
Mar 13, 2012
Look up Ramana Maharishi - and his views about the awake state and dream state...nothing do you do with your article but since you enjoy perspectives - this could be interesting
 
 
Mar 12, 2012
.I feel confidence is way overrated... Considering I have met too many people who are way to confident in their stupidity.

Like Texasbob I always keep a bit of self depreciation in my ability's.

lack of confidence keeps me grounded, and pushes me to do better, And be realistic. I think the key of coarse is balance.
 
 
Mar 12, 2012
Or maybe I just wrote a wordy description of the Peter Principle.
 
 
Mar 12, 2012
I go through a variation of this internal monologue at least 5 times a week. I am convinced that I am incompetent, and I am a high-level executive at a multi-billion dollar corporation. (Maybe that’s the proof in the pudding.) My guess – which I fully acknowledge is probably some form of psychological self-deception designed to assuage this disturbing self-awareness – is that there is so much information in the modern world that very few people can be truly competent in their field unless it is a very narrow specialty or unless they have many more years of experience than were required to be competent in previous generations. More analytical and self-aware/critical folk are likely aware of the gaps in their perception/knowledge, aware of the risk that presents (especially when they are presented to the workforce as an expert), and worry accordingly about their very real incompetence. Actually, perhaps a new term is needed – how about incomplete competence?
 
 
Mar 12, 2012
I've asked myself the competance question in a slightly different way; I call it "the smartest person in the room" problem.

Suppose you are in a room full of people, discussing an intricate, complicated problem. This setting should feel familiar to those in the tech industry. You have an elegant solution to the problem that feels exactly right, but no one else in the room seems to be able to grasp it, and as such they dismiss it and go with some other solution, probably some "tried-n-true" method that you KNOW won't really address the core issue; it is just a band-aid to allow the group to live with it. Your solution would actually solve the problem once and for all, and it is just so frustrating that no one else can see that.

It could be that you are the smartest person in the room and can see things that others can't. Or it could be that your idea really isn't as brilliant as you think it is, because YOU aren't as brilliant as you think you are. But how can you tell the difference? If your solution really is beyond their ability to grasp, how can you get them to buy into it? On the other hand, if you don't have the intellectual horsepower to understand why your idea is a crock, how can they explain it to you?

It seems to me that people at both ends of the intelligence or competance scale have simliar problems: neither set will be satisfied with the way things get done, one because they see how it could be so much better, and the other because they don't understand the subtleties of even half-baked solutions. When I see people in online forums talking about problems in ways that seem completely stupid to me, I sometimes wonder, is that person really stupid, or is he operating on a level that is so far beyond mine that I just can't comprehend what he is saying?

I'm pretty sure that most of the time, it is the first option. I just wonder how much I miss because I can't tell the difference.
 
 
Mar 12, 2012
wow...

just got around to reading this post & comments - talk about "I went to see the fight & a hockey game broke out..."
 
 
Mar 12, 2012
Sorry about that BobNL. The science deniers jumped into the thread early and I helped the thread get hijacked by running with that debate at the cost of the thread itself. You are right, it wasn't really productive for the subject at hand.
 
 
Mar 12, 2012
I'm loving these ad hominem attacks. It really shows your lack of substance.

Anyway, if you care to look it up, I think you'll find that global warming was understood to exist in 1988. I think you'll find that the "climategate" investigations found no misdeeds among the scientists (and if you knew about modelling, you would understand why, so I know you don't know about modelling).

You'll also find that the peer review process is still valid. It isn't a "pal" review process.

You also give way too much credit to the CRU. It's typical of the denial community echo chamber to take a small thing out of context, claim something that's not true as a victory, then pretend that it represents the entire community. You're not bringing forward a single argument that I haven't heard before nor have you brought forward a single credible, peer reviewed climatologist.

You'll excuse me if I don't count Exxon funded research that actually isn't research in the traditional sense of the term as evidence that so many honest scientists are wrong. You are either being intellectually dishonest or ignorant with your arguments, so you're not worth my time. Call me names, make a million false assumptions about my experience, and display an enormous amount of ignorant comments that I could get from 5 minutes on Heartland.org (a website with zero credibility), and all you are doing is waving a big flag saying "my opinion is irrelevant." I've been thoroughly disappointed with the quality of exchange here. Usually when debating with someone who disagrees with me I learn something and consider it a massive gain to my personal experience, but that has not been the case today.
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 12, 2012
On topic:

I believe that I am not competent in judging my own competence. I think my competence is the average of my own assessment and the assessment of my competence by others.

And WTF is this discussion about climate-change doing here? You are polluting the comments.
 
 
Mar 12, 2012
Haha, you are two funny. So the glaciologist who was employed by British Petrol needed to support climate change in order to get government funding?

As far as not knowing what the peer review process is like, that's simply not true. I'm more familiar with it than you might like to imagine, but oh well, you don't seem to be concerned with fact. You can quote soundbites all you want, but you have no real substance in there.

Anyway, there is too much wrong with your post to do a point by point. I would literally have to point out 3 errors per sentence. I'll just say that it seems like we're not going to convince each other. Nice talking to you.
 
 
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 12, 2012
Off-topic, allthough it is a topic that regularly appears on this blog:

Research now shows what we, the normal people, have known all along: rich(er) people are (more) unethical.

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120307145432.htm
 
 
Mar 12, 2012
As far as Feynman goes, he's one of my favourite physicists of all time. I hadn't heard that speech, but I just finished Krauss' biography of him. That being said, Feynman never criticized climate change during his life, so you can borrow his idea of cargo cult science and pretend that it applies to evolution, global warming, a flat earth, or whatever else you want to deny, but don't pretend that has anything to do with Feynman.
 
 
Mar 12, 2012
It's actually pretty funny that you believe there is such a massive conspiracy and that climatologists that I have met in Mongolia, Antartica, Canada, Madagascar, and Nicaragua all have the same motivation to trick me into the same scam as two Norwegian glaciologists. I also find it funny that you claim to be such a fountain of knowledge on science yet have such a disdain for the peer review process, which is one of the most important processes to maintain academic honesty.

Of course, you can feel free to trust the Exxon funded organizations to provide you with unbiased information. I won't take that right away from you.

Basically what I'm saying is that you are not coming across nearly as competent in this subject matter as you might hope to. There are so many interesting questions and uncertainties surrounding climate science that it's kind of funny to watch people persist in denying the stuff that is well understood and pretend there is controversy there.

Anyway, that's all I've got. I'm not a climatologist, but I've had enough independent, frank, and off-the-record discussions with people who know what they are talking about. You are right, science isn't about "trust," but when I'm not an expert on an issue, I do tend to consider the opinions of respectable scientists who have dedicated their lives to it. I know I'm not going to convince you, but that's ok. Take my comments for what they are worth to you.
 
 
 
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog