March 13, 2017

Is the feeling that you are competent always an indication of incompetence?

In this article I mentioned the following quote by Charles Darwin: "Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge." I agreed with this and offered the Dunning-Kruger effect as an explanation of the phenomenon. This explanation, briefly, is that it takes competence to more or less reliably assess one's own competence. People with low competence in a certain area do not realize how low their competence is. In another article I mentioned that incompetence can even go hand in hand with arrogance while competence can go hand in hand with modesty. Of course, the Dunning-Kruger effect is not only applicable to other people but also to ourselves. David Dunning (photo), one of the pioneering researcher into the effect, said the following:
“But the key lesson of the Dunning-Kruger framework is that it applies to us all, sooner or later. Each of us at some point reaches the limits of our expertise and knowledge. Those limits make our misjudgments that lie beyond those boundaries undetectable for us.”

Is the feeling that you are competent always actually an indication of incompetence?

The Dunning-Kruger effect reflects a blind spot each one of us may have. How can deal with this effectively? Are there indirect ways of gaining more insight into the areas in which we grossly overestimate ourselves? Is it perhaps so that the level of our confidence on any topic is merely an indicator of our own ignorance? This is a scary hypothesis because, if true, it would mean that we could never have any confidence in our own conclusions. But I think the hypothesis is not true.

On the right is a typical Dunning-Kruger graph (source). It shows that, indeed, people with the lowest competence, on average, overestimate their own performance to the largest extent. But it does not confirm what Darwin observed (see quote above). The people with a low competence do not have higher confidence than people with higher competence. People of higher competence, actually, even have a slightly higher confidence.

On what do you base your feeling of competence?

Thus, it does not appear to be true that people with low competence are self-assured whereas people of high competence are uncertain. The main point is that with people of low competence their self-confidence is unjustified. The hypothesis that confidence is always an indication of ignorance is not true. The central question is: do we have a good reason to be confident about our own competence?

We can draw several lessons from these conclusions. First, we cannot trust our own confidence about our competence to be reliable. It can be justified or unjustified. Second, we need different basis to determine the adequacy of our own level of confidence. As I wrote in this article, a good way to check your own knowledge about a topic is to explain in detail, preferably on paper, what you know about the topic. This can be a good way to discover that you may know less about the details of the topic than your thought. Third, we can, to some extent, focus on maintain a beginner's mindset, even when we know relatively much about a topic. While we can be quite confident about some topics within our area of expertise, at the same time, we can keep on paying attention to the topic about which have questions, and are confused or uncertain. Just about any area of expertise is quite complex and often evolving. There are always grounds to keep questioning your own expertise and to keep learning and investigating.


Feeling confident is not always an indication of incompetence. When we are able to specifically explain what that confidence is based in ways that other can understand and verify we can be relatively confident about your confidence.

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