In defense of Humility or; Confidence is no Measure of Competence

"Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge." Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man,1871

For as long as I can remember, I have been desperately concerned with my level of metacognitive skill. It was the reason I gave the first story I ever wrote for public consumption to my best friend to critique, I was seven and I remember vividly the relief that I had a chance to fix it before I read it to the prep class (the grade before grade 1, in Australia.) Metacognition is the ability to assess one’s own skill level and, of course, I didn’t know the word until my university philosophy of mind studies, but my greatest fear has always been not failure to achieve perfection but to have thought that what I had done was objectively good and then to discover that it wasn’t.

Whether a child, probably too young even to have metacognitive ability, should be worrying about such things is a valid question for another, more private, forum, but it has driven a life-long love of theory and research, if only to do as much as I can to make sure I don’t find myself in that situation. It’s what drives me to believe that editing and story analysis classes are more important for a writer than any “Express yourselves, dahlings!” creative writing classes. It’s also lead to a morbid curiosity about how on earth people have the confidence to, for example, audition for So You Think You Can Dance despite having no ability whatsoever. Aren’t they embarrassed? And how can they not know how bad they are?

The same questions come to mind when I read an terribly flawed piece of writing.* When I have been asked to give feedback (professionally or no) I have to try to work out why the writer hasn’t noticed these flaws so that I can work out the best way to approach giving my feedback in the hope that it will be taken as constructively as it is meant. I have found, again and again, that the level of confidence the writer has is an excellent gauge, invariably, those whose pieces need the most work are most shocked that any work is required and genuinely seem to have believed they had produced a masterpiece.

I have discussed this many times with Superman and he recently pointed me to a 1999 report which shed some interesting light on the subject and backs up the, now old-fashioned, belief that anyone who believes themselves to be the best at anything is unlikely to be even close to the best.

The Report:Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”**

In their 1999 report, Kruger and Dunning outlined four studies they had undertaken which were inspired by previous studies which showed a correlation between level of confidence and lack of ability. Kruger and Dunning devised experiments in which they asked people to take tests in the areas of logical reasoning, humor and English grammar, then asked them to estimate both: what their specific test score had been and; which percentile their test results fell into (i.e., where their test result would fall in comparison to others’.) The aim was to find the subjects’ actual skill level in an area, and then see if they were aware of what their skill level actually was.

unskilled and unaware chart

Their findings were unambiguous: the less skill you have, the more grossly you overestimate your ability and, perhaps more instructively, it seems only those with above average skill underestimate their skill. Thus, if you want to make an assumption about a person’s skill from their attitude, the best thing to do is to watch out for humility, not confidence!

“But, but, but!” I hear all the management-book-steeped would-be-Donald-Trumps of the world shriek, “That’s loser talk. Confidence is the most important thing! If you don’t think you’re the best, who will?”

This is an attitude that, as far as I can tell, began to seep into the world in the 80’s, as advertising men, salesmen and generic ‘business’ men began to make enormous amounts of money, and people started looking to them as icons of success. Suddenly, everyone was reading management and wealth-building books written by these ‘guru’s, and this requirement for uber-self-confidence was being applied in interview rooms across all sorts of industries. Quiet confidence and humility became associated with ‘losers’ – who just didn’t want it enough, or were cursed with low self-esteem - a condition which was to be treated like a highly contagious disease.

I’m not denying the existence of, or problems associated with low self-esteem. It may surprise some people who have met me, because I usually speak with confidence, but I’ve been close to crippled by low self-esteem for much of my life. When I speak up, it is with confidence, but that’s because I only speak up if I have done copious research, practice and, especially if it involved public speaking, throwing up, in private.  I understand completely that a certain level of confidence is required just to step into any arena of experience, some more than others, but beyond the minimum level of confidence required for the particular task at hand confidence is, as the studies demonstrate, more of an indication of lack of skill than of competence.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that projection of confidence is essential in marketing, or sales, or any profession which requires one to convince others to willingly do what you want them to do. I also understand the philosophy that any interview is a sales pitch of yourself. It is not true, however, that every job is a sales job and anyone who conducts interviews for non-sales positions and makes their decisions based on who sold themselves most confidently really can’t complain when that applicant turns out not to have the skill they’d hoped (or has even lied on their resume!) Such interviewers are as responsible for the bad hire as they would be if they’d ordered a disappointing piece of exercise equipment skillfully advertised in the wee hours of the morning.

Of course, a study like this isn’t going to instantly change the prevailing culture but I thought it worth sharing with my small audience of, mostly, writers hoping to be published who are wrestling with their own levels of confidence, or perhaps should be :)

*Note: Any discussion of ability brings with it the jinx that there will be numerous grammatical and spelling errors in the very piece discussing it. I’d like to point out that metacognition is the issue here and I’m fully aware that this blog post won’t be perfect, unwilling as I am to spend more time than it takes to jot down the thoughts and get my creative juices flowing for my fiction writing!

** “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”, Justin Kruger and David Dunning Department of Psychology Cornell University, © 1999 by the American Psychological Association For personal use only--not for distribution December 1999 Vol. 77, No. 6, 1121-1134