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

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People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it. Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although their test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd. Several analyses linked this miscalibration to deficits in metacognitive skill, or the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error. Paradoxically, improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities.
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Psychology, 2009, 1, 30-46
Published Online December 2009 (http://www.scirp.org/journal/psych).
Copyright © 2009 SciRes. PSYCH
Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in
Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated
Self-Assessments
Justin KRUGER, David DUNNING
Abstract
People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The au-
thors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains
suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices,
but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it. Across 4 studies, the authors
found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overes-
timated their test performance and ability. Although their test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they
estimated themselves to be in the 62nd. Several analyses linked this miscalibration to deficits in metacogni-
tive skill, or the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error. Paradoxically, improving the skills of partici-
pants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their
abilities.
Keywords: Inflated Self-Assessments, metacognitive competence
In 1995, McArthur Wheeler walked into two Pittsburgh
banks and robbed them in broad daylight, with no visible
attempt at disguise. He was arrested later that night, less
than an hour after videotapes of him taken .from surveil-
lance cameras were broadcast on the 11 o'clock news.
When police later showed him the surveillance tapes, Mr.
Wheeler stared in incredulity. “But I wore the juice,” he
mumbled. Apparently, Mr. Wheeler was under the im-
pression that rubbing one's face with lemon juice ren-
dered it invisible to videotape cameras (Fuocco, 1996).
We bring up the unfortunate affairs of Mr. Wheeler to
make three points. The first two are noncontroversial.
First, in many domains in life, success and satisfaction
depend on knowledge, wisdom, or savvy in knowing
which rules to follow and which strategies to pursue.
This is true not only for committing crimes, but also for
many tasks in the social and intellectual domains, such as
promoting effective leadership, raising children, con-
structing a solid logical argument, or designing a rigor-
ous psychological study. Second, people differ widely in
the knowledge and strategies they apply in these domains
(Dunning, Meyerowitz, & Holzberg, 1989; Dunning,
Perie, & Story, 1991; Story & Dunning, 1998), with
varying levels of success. Some of the knowledge and
theories that people apply to their actions are sound and
meet with favorable results. Others, like the lemon juice
hypothesis of McArthur Wheeler, are imperfect at best
and wrong-headed, incompetent, or dysfunctional at
worst.
Perhaps more controversial is the third point, the one
that is the focus of this article. We argue that when peo-
ple are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to
achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual bur-
den: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and
make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs
them of the ability to realize it. Instead, like Mr. Wheeler,
they are left with the mistaken impression that they are
doing just fine. As Miller (1993) perceptively observed
in the quote that opens this article, and as Charles Dar-
win (1871) sagely noted over a century ago, “ignorance
more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”
(p. 3).
In essence, we argue that the skills that engender com-
petence in a particular domain are often the very same
skills necessary to evaluate competence in that do-
main-one's own or anyone else's. Because of this, in-
competent individuals lack what cognitive psychologists
variously term metacognition (Everson & Tobias, 1998),
J. KRUGER ET AL. 31
metamemory (Klin, Guizman, & Levine, 1997), meta-
comprehension (Maki, Jonas, & Kallod, 1994), or
self-monitoring skills (Chi, Glaser, & Rees, 1982). These
terms refer to the ability to know how well one is per-
forming, when one is likely to be accurate in judgment,
and when one is likely to be in error. For example, con-
sider the ability to write grammatical English. The skills
that enable one to construct a grammatical sentence are
the same skills necessary to recognize a grammatical
sentence, and thus are the same skills necessary to de-
termine if a grammatical mistake has been made. In short,
the same knowledge that underlies the ability to produce
correct judgment is also the knowledge that underlies the
ability to recognize correct judgment. To lack the former
is to be deficient in the latter.
2. Imperfect Self-Assessments
We focus on the metacognitive skills of the incompetent
to explain, in part, the fact that people seem to be so im-
perfect in appraising themselves and their abilities.1 Per-
haps the best illustration of this tendency is the “above-
average effect,” or the tendency of the average person to
believe he or she is above average, a result that defies the
logic of descriptive statistics (Alicke, 1985; Alicke,
Klotz, Breitenbecher, Yurak, & Vredenburg, 1995;
Brown & Gallagher, 1992; Cross, 1977; Dunning et al,
1989; Klar, Medding, & Sarel, 1996; Weinstein, 1980;
Weinstein & Lachendro, 1982). For example, high
school students tend to see themselves as having more
ability in leadership, getting along with others, and writ-
ten expression than their peers (College Board, 1976-
1977), business managers view themselves as more able
than the typical manager (Larwood & Whittaker, 1977),
and football players see themselves as more savvy in
“football sense” than their teammates (Felson, 1981).
We believe focusing on the metacognitive deficits of
the unskilled may help explain this overall tendency to-
ward inflated self-appraisals. Because people usually
choose what they think is the most reasonable and opti-
mal option (Metcalfe, 1998), the failure to recognize that
one has performed poorly will instead leave one to as-
sume that one has performed well. As a result, the in-
competent will tend to grossly overestimate their skills
and abilities.
2. Competence and Metacognitive Skills
Several lines of research are consistent with the notion
that incompetent individuals lack the metacognitive
skills necessary for accurate self-assessment. Work on
the nature of expertise, for instance, has revealed that
novices possess poorer metacognitive skills than do ex-
perts. In physics, novices are less accurate than experts in
judging the difficulty of physics problems (Chi et al.,
1982). In chess, novices are less calibrated than experts
about how many times they need to see a given chess-
board position before they are able to reproduce it cor-
rectly (Chi, 1978). In tennis, novices are less likely than
experts to successfully gauge whether specific play at-
tempts were successful (McPherson & Thomas, 1989).
These findings suggest that unaccomplished individu-
als do not possess the degree of metacognitive skills
necessary for accurate self-assessment that their more
accomplished counterparts possess. However, none of
this research has examined whether metacognitive defi-
ciencies translate into inflated self-assessments or
whether the relatively incompetent (novices) are system-
atically more miscalibrated about their ability than are
the competent (experts).
If one skims through the psychological literature, one
will find some evidence that the incompetent are less
able than their more skilled peers to gauge their own
level of competence. For example, Fagot and O'Brien
(1994) found that socially incompetent boys were largely
unaware of their lack of social graces (see Bern & Lord,
1979, for a similar result involving college students).
Mediocre students are less accurate than other students at
evaluating their course performance (Moreland, Miller,
& Laucka, 1981). Unskilled readers are less able to as-
sess their text comprehension than are more skilled read-
ers (Maki, Jonas, & Kallod, 1994). Students doing poorly
on tests less accurately predict which questions they will
get right than do students doing well (Shaughnessy, 1979;
Sinkavich, 1995). Drivers involved in accidents or
flunking a driving exam predict their performance on a
reaction test less accurately than do more accomplished
and experienced drivers (Kunkel, 1971). However, none
of these studies has examined whether deficient meta-
cognitive skills underlie these miscalibrations, nor have
they tied these miscalibrations to the above-average ef-
fect.
3. Predictions
These shards of empirical evidence suggest that incom-
petent individuals have more difficulty recognizing their
true level of ability than do more competent individuals
Copyright © 2009 SciRes. PSYCH
32 J. KRUGER ET AL.
and that a lack of metacognitive skills may underlie this
deficiency. Thus, we made four specific predictions
about the links between competence, metacognitive abil-
ity, and inflated self-assessment.
Prediction 1. Incompetent individuals, compared with
their more competent peers, will dramatically overesti-
mate their ability and performance relative to objective
criteria.
Prediction 2. Incompetent individuals will suffer from
deficient metacognitive skills, in that they will be less
able than their more competent peers to recognize com-
petence when they see it—be it their own or anyone
else's.
Prediction 3. Incompetent individuals will be less able
than their more competent peers to gain insight into their
true level of performance by means of social comparison
information. In particular, because of their difficulty
recognizing competence in others, incompetent individu-
als will be unable to use information about the choices
and performances of others to form more accurate im-
pressions of their own ability.
Prediction 4. The incompetent can gain insight about
their shortcomings, but this comes (paradoxically) by
making them more competent, thus providing them the
metacognitive skills necessary to be able to realize that
they have performed poorly.
4. The Studies
We explored these predictions in four studies. In each,
we presented participants with tests that assessed their
ability in a domain in which knowledge, wisdom, or
savvy was crucial: humor (Study 1), logical reasoning
(Studies 2-and 4), and English grammar (Study 3). We
then asked participants to assess their ability and test
performance. In all studies, we predicted that participants
in general would overestimate their ability and perform-
ance relative to objective criteria. But more to the point,
we predicted that those who proved to be incompetent
(i.e., those who scored in the bottom quarter of the dis-
tribution) would be unaware that they had performed
poorly. For example, their score would fall in the 10th or
15th percentile among their peers, but they would esti-
mate that it fell much higher (Prediction 1). Of course,
this overestimation could be taken as a mathematical
verity. If one has a low score, one has a better chance of
overestimating one's performance than underestimating it.
Thus, the real question in these studies is how much
those who scored poorly would be miscalibrated with
respect to their performance.
In addition, we wanted to examine the relationship
between miscalibrated views of ability and metacogni-
tive skills, which we operationalized as (a) the ability to
distinguish what one has answered correctly from what
one has answered incorrectly and (b) the ability to rec-
ognize competence in others. Thus, in Study 4, we asked
participants to not only estimate their overall perform-
ance and ability, but to indicate which specific test items
they believed they had answered correctly and which
incorrectly. In Study 3, we showed competent and in-
competent individuals the responses of others and as-
sessed how well participants from each group could spot
good and poor performances. In both studies, we pre-
dicted that the incompetent would manifest poorer
metacognitive skills than would their more competent
peers (Prediction 2).
We also wanted to find out what experiences or inter-
ventions would make low performers realize the true
level of performance that they had attained. Thus, in
Study 3, we asked participants to reassess their own abil-
ity after they had seen the responses of their peers. We
predicted that competent individuals would learn from
observing the responses of others, thereby becoming
better calibrated about the quality of their performance
relative to their peers. Incompetent participants, in con-
trast, would not (Prediction 3). In Study 4, we gave par-
ticipants training in the domain of logical reasoning and
explored whether this newfound competence would
prompt incompetent individuals toward a better under-
standing of the true level of their ability and test per-
formance (Prediction 4).
4.1. Study 1: Humor
In Study 1, we decided to explore people's perceptions of
their competence in a domain that requires sophisticated
knowledge and wisdom about the tastes and reactions of
other people. That domain was humor. To anticipate
what is and what others will find funny, one must have
subtle and tacit knowledge about other people's tastes.
Thus, in Study 1 we presented participants with a series
of jokes and asked them to rate the humor of each one.
We then compared their ratings with those provided by a
panel of experts, namely, professional comedians who
make their living by recognizing what is funny and re-
porting it to their audiences. By comparing each partici-
pant's ratings with those of our expert panel, we could
roughly assess participants' ability to spot humor.
Copyright © 2009 SciRes. PSYCH
J. KRUGER ET AL. 33
Our key interest was how perceptions of that ability
converged with actual ability. Specifically, we wanted to
discover whether those who did poorly on our measure
would recognize the low quality of their performance.
Would they recognize it or would they be unaware?
4.1.1. Method
Participants. Participants were 65 Cornell University
undergraduates from a variety of courses in psychology
who earned extra credit for their participation.
Materials. We created a 30-item questionnaire made
up of jokes we felt were of varying comedic value.
Jokes were taken from Woody Allen (1975), Al
Frankin (1992), and a book of “really silly” pet jokes
by Jeff Rovin (1996). To assess joke quality, we con-
tacted several professional comedians via electronic
mail and asked them to rate each joke on a scale rang-
ing from 1 (not at all funny) to 11 (very funny). Eight
comedians responded to our request (Bob Crawford,
Costaki Economopoulos, Paul Frisbie, Kathleen
Madigan, Ann Rose, Allan Sitterson, David Spark, and
Dan St. Paul). Although the ratings provided by the
eight comedians were moderately reliable (a = .72), an
analysis of interrater correlations found that one (and
only one) comedian's ratings failed to correlate posi-
tively with the others (mean r = -.09). We thus ex-
cluded this comedian's ratings in our calculation of the
humor value of each joke, yielding a final a of .76.
Expert ratings revealed that jokes ranged from the not
so funny (e.g., “Question: What is big as a man, but
weighs nothing? Answer: His shadow.” Mean expert
rating = 1.3) to the very funny (e.g., “If a kid asks
where rain comes from, I think a cute thing to tell him
is 'God is crying.' And if he asks why God is crying,
another cute thing to tell him is 'probably because of
something you did.'” Mean expert rating = 9.6).
Procedure. Participants rated each joke on the same
11-point scale used by the comedians. Afterward, par-
ticipants compared their “ability to recognize what's
funny” with that of the average Cornell student by pro-
viding a percentile ranking. In this and in all subsequent
studies, we explained that percentile rankings could
range from 0 (I'm at the very bottom) to 50 (I'm exactly
average) to 99 (I'm at the very top).
4.1.2. Results and Discussion
Gender failed to qualify any results in this or any of the
studies reported in this article, and thus receives no fur-
ther mention.
Our first prediction was that participants overall would
overestimate their ability to tell what is funny relative to
their peers. To find out whether this was the case, we
first assigned each participant a percentile rank based on
the extent to which his or her joke ratings correlated with
the ratings provided by our panel of professionals (with
higher correlations corresponding to better performance).
On average, participants put their ability to recognize
what is funny in the 66th percentile, which exceeded the
actual mean percentile (50, by definition) by 16 percen-
tile points, one-sample /(64) = 7.02, p < .0001. This
overestimation occurred even though self-ratings of abil-
ity were significantly correlated with our measure of
actual ability, r(63) = .39, p < .001.
Our main focus, however, is on the perceptions of
relatively “incompetent” participants, which we de-
fined as those whose test score fell in the bottom quar-
tile (n = 16). As Figure 1 depicts, these participants
grossly overestimated their ability relative to their
peers. Whereas their actual performance fell in the 12th
percentile, they put themselves in the 58th percentile.
These estimates were not only higher than the ranking
they actually achieved, paired r(15) = 10.33, p < .0001,
but were also marginally higher than a ranking of “av-
erage” (i.e., the 50th percentile), one-sample t(15) =
1.96, p < .07. That is, even participants in the bottom
quarter of the distribution tended to feel that they were
better than average.
As Figure 1 illustrates, participants in other quartiles
did not overestimate their ability to the same degree.
Indeed, those in the top quartile actually underestimated
their ability relative to their peers, paired 1(15) = -2.20, p
< .05.
Figure 1. Perceived ability to recognize humor as a function
of actual test performance (Study 1).
Copyright © 2009 SciRes. PSYCH
34 J. KRUGER ET AL.
4.1.3. Summary
In short, Study 1 revealed two effects of interest. First,
although perceptions of ability were modestly correlated
with actual ability, people tended to overestimate their
ability relative to their peers. Second, and most important,
those who performed particularly poorly relative to their-
peers were utterly unaware of this fact. Participants scor-
ing in the bottom quartile on our humor test not only
overestimated their percentile ranking, but they overes-
timated it by 46 percentile points. To be sure, they had an
inkling that they were not as talented in this domain as
were participants in the top quartile, as evidenced by the
significant correlation between perceived and actual abil-
ity. However, that suspicion failed to anticipate the mag-
nitude of their shortcomings.
At first blush, the reader may point to the regression
effect as an alternative interpretation of our results. After
all, we examined the perceptions of people who had
scored extremely poorly on the objective test we handed
them, and found that their perceptions were less extreme
than their reality. Because perceptions of ability are im-
perfectly correlated with actual ability, the regression
effect virtually guarantees this result. Moreover, because
incompetent participants scored close to the bottom of
the distribution, it was nearly impossible for them to un-
derestimate their performance.
Despite the inevitability of the regression effect, we
believe that the overestimation we observed was more
psychological than artifactual. For one, if regression
alone were to blame for our results, then the magnitude
of miscalibration among the bottom quartile would be
comparable with that of the top quartile. A glance at
Figure 1 quickly disabuses one of this notion. Still, we
believe this issue warrants empirical attention, which we
devote in Studies 3 and 4.
4.2. Study 2: Logical Reasoning
We conducted Study 2 with three goals in mind. First,
we wanted to replicate the results of Study 1 in a differ-
ent domain, one focusing on intellectual rather than so-
cial abilities. We chose logical reasoning, a skill central
to the academic careers of the participants we tested and
a skill that is called on frequently. We wondered if those
who do poorly relative to their peers on a logical reason-
ing test would be unaware of their poor performance.
Examining logical reasoning also enabled us to com-
pare perceived and actual ability in a domain less am-
biguous than the one we examined in the previous study.
It could reasonably be argued that humor, like beauty, is
in the eye of the beholder.2 Indeed, the imperfect inter-
rater reliability among our group of professional come-
dians suggests that there is considerable variability in
what is considered funny even by experts. This criterion
problem, or lack of uncontroversial criteria against which
self-perceptions can be compared, is particularly prob-
lematic in light of the tendency to define ambiguous
traits and abilities in ways that emphasize one's own
strengths (Dunning et al., 1989). Thus, it may have been
the tendency to define humor idiosyncratically, and in
ways favorable to one's tastes and sensibilities, that pro-
duced the miscalibration we observed-not the tendency
of the incompetent to miss their own failings. By exam-
ining logical reasoning skills, we could circumvent this
problem by presenting students with questions for which
there is a definitive right answer.
Finally, we wanted to introduce another objective cri-
terion with which we could compare participants' per-
ceptions. Because percentile ranking is by definition a
comparative measure, the miscalibration we saw could
have come from either of two sources. In the comparison,
participants may have overestimated their own ability
(our contention) or may have underestimated the skills of
their peers. To address this issue, in Study 2 we added a
second criterion with which to compare participants'
perceptions. At the end of the test, we asked participants
to estimate how many of the questions they had gotten
right and compared their estimates with their actual test
scores. This enabled us to directly examine whether the
incompetent are, indeed, miscalibrated with respect to
their own ability and performance.
4.2.1. Method
Participants. Participants were 45 Cornell University
undergraduates from a single introductory psychology
course who earned extra credit for their participation.
Data from one additional participant was excluded
because she failed to complete the dependent meas-
ures.
Procedure. Upon arriving at the laboratory, partici-
pants were told that the study focused on logical reason-
ing skills. Participants then completed a 20-item logical
reasoning test that we created using questions taken from
a Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) test preparation
guide (Orton, 1993). Afterward, participants made three
estimates about their ability and test performance. First,
they compared their “general logical reasoning ability”
Copyright © 2009 SciRes. PSYCH
J. KRUGER ET AL. 35
with that of other students from their psychology class by
providing their percentile ranking. Second, they esti-
mated how their score on the test would compare with
that of their classmates, again on a percentile scale. Fi-
nally, they estimated how many test questions (out of 20)
they thought they had answered correctly. The order in
which these questions were asked was counterbalanced
in this and in all subsequent studies.
4.2.2. Results and Discussion
The order in which specific questions were asked did not
affect any of the results in this or in any of the studies
reported in this article and thus receives no further men-
tion.
As expected, participants overestimated their logical
reasoning ability relative to their peers. On average, par-
ticipants placed themselves in the 66th percentile among
students from their class, which was significantly higher
than the actual mean of 50, onesample r(44) = 8.13, p
< .0001. Participants also overestimated their percentile
rank on the test, M percentile = 61, one-sample t(44) =
4.70, p < .0001. Participants did not, however, overesti-
mate how many questions they answered correctly, M =
13.3 (perceived) vs. 12.9 (actual), t < 1. As in Study 1,
perceptions of ability were positively related to actual
ability, although in this case, not to a significant degree.
The correlations between actual ability and the three
perceived ability and performance measures ranged
from .05 to .19, all ns.
What (or rather, who) was responsible for this gross
miscalibration? To find out, we once again split partici-
pants into quartiles based on their performance on the
test. As Figure 2 clearly illustrates, it was participants in
the bottom quartile (n = 11) who overestimated their
logical reasoning ability and test performance to the
greatest extent. Although these individuals scored at the
12th percentile on average, they nevertheless believed
that their general logical reasoning ability fell at the 68th
percentile and their score on the test fell at the 62nd per-
centile. Their estimates not only exceeded their actual
percentile scores, fs(10) = 17.2 and 11.0, respectively, ps
< .0001, but exceeded the 50th percentile as well, fs(10)
= 4.93 and 2.31, .respectively, ps < .05. Thus, partici-
pants in the bottom quartile not only overestimated
themselves but believed that they were above average.
Similarly, they thought they had answered 14.2 problems
correctly on average-compared with the actual mean
score of 9.6, r(10) = 7.66, p < .0001.
Other participants were less miscalibrated. However,
as Figure 2 shows, those in the top quartile once again
tended to underestimate their ability. Whereas their test
performance put them in the 86th percentile, they esti-
mated it to be at the 68th percentile and estimated their
general logical reasoning ability to fall at only the 74th
percentile, fs(12) = -3.55 and -2.50, respectively,ps < .05.
Top-quartile participants also underestimated their raw
score on the test, although this tendency was less robust,
M = 14.0 (perceived) versus 16.9 (actual), r(12) = -2.15,/?
< .06.
4.2.3. Summary
In sum, Study 2 replicated the primary results of Study 1
in a different domain. Participants in general overesti-
mated their logical reasoning ability, and it was once
again those in the bottom quartile who showed the great-
est miscalibration. It is important to note that these same
effects were observed when participants considered their
percentile score, ruling out the criterion problem dis-
cussed earlier. Lest one think these results reflect erro-
neous peer assessment rather then erroneous self-as-
sessment, participants in the bottom quartile also overes-
timated the number of test items they had gotten right by
nearly 50%.
4.3. Study 3 (Phase 1): Grammar
Study 3 was conducted in two phases. The first phase
consisted of a replication of the first two studies in a
third domain, one requiring knowledge of clear and deci-
sive rules and facts: grammar. People may differ in the
Figure 2. Perceived logical reasoning ability and test per-
formance as a function of actual test performance (Study 2).
Copyright © 2009 SciRes. PSYCH
36 J. KRUGER ET AL.
worth they assign to American Standard Written English
(ASWE), but they do agree that such a standard exists,
and they differ in their ability to produce and recognize
written documents that conform to that standard.
Thus, in Study 3 we asked participants to complete a
test assessing their knowledge of ASWE. We also asked
them to rate their overall ability to recognize correct
grammar, how their test performance compared with that
of their peers, and finally how many items they had an-
swered correctly on the test. In this way, we could see if
those who did poorly would recognize that fact.
4.3.1. Method
Participants. Participants were 84 Cornell University
undergraduates who received extra credit toward their
course grade for taking part in the study.
Procedure. The basic procedure and primary depend-
ent measures were similar to those of Study 2. One major
change was that of domain. Participants completed a
20-item test of grammar, with questions taken from a
National Teacher Examination preparation guide (Bo-
brow et al., 1989). Each test item contained a sentence
with a specific portion underlined. Participants were to
judge whether the underlined portion was grammatically
correct or should be changed to one of four different re-
wordings displayed.
After completing the test, participants compared their
general ability to “identify grammatically correct stan-
dard English” with that of other students from their class
on the same percentile scale used in the previous studies.
As in Study 2, participants also estimated the percentile
rank of their test performance among their student peers,
as well as the number of individual test items they had
answered correctly.
4.3.2. Results and Discussion
As in Studies 1 and 2, participants overestimated their
ability and performance relative to objective criteria. On
average, participants' estimates of their grammar ability
(M percentile = 71) and performance on the test (M per-
centile = 68) exceeded the actual mean of 50, one-sample
rs(83) = 5.90 and 5.13, respectively, ps < .0001. Partici-
pants also overestimated the number of items they an-
swered correctly, M = 15.2 (perceived) versus 13.3 (ac-
tual), r(83) = 6.63, p < .0001. Although participants'
perceptions of their general grammar ability were uncor-
related with their actual test scores, r(82) = .14, ns, their
perceptions of how their test performance would rank
among their peers was correlated with their actual score,
albeit to a marginal degree, r(82) = .19, p < .09, as was
their direct estimate of their raw test score, r(82) = .54, p
<.0001.
As Figure 3 illustrates, participants scoring in the bot-
tom quartile grossly overestimated their ability relative to
their peers. Whereas bottom-quartile participants (n = 17)
scored in the 10th percentile on average, they estimated
their grammar ability and performance on the test to be
in the 67th and 61st percentiles, respectively, ts(16) =
13.68 and 15.75, ps < .0001. Bottomquartile participants
also overestimated their raw score on the test by 3.7
points, M = 12.9 (perceived) versus 9.2 (actual), f(16) =
5.79, p< .0001.
As in previous studies, participants falling in other quar-
tiles overestimated their ability and performance much less
than did those in the bottom quartile. However, as Figure 3
shows, those in the top quartile once again underestimated
themselves. Whereas their test performance fell in the 89th
percentile among their peers, they rated their ability to be in
the 72nd percentile and their test performance in the 70th
percentile, ts(18) = -4.73 and -5.08, respectively, ps
< .0001. Top-quartile participants did not, however, under-
estimate their raw score on the test, M = 16.9 (perceived)
versus 16.4 (actual), r(18) = 1.37, ns.
4.4. Study 3 (Phase 2): It Takes One to Know One
Thus far, we have shown that people who lack the
knowledge or wisdom to perform well are often unaware
of this fact. We attribute this lack of awareness to a defi-
cit in metacognitive skill. That is, the same incompetence
that leads them to make wrong choices also deprives
them of the savvy necessary to recognize competence, be
it their own or anyone else's.
Figure 3. Perceived grammar ability and test performance
as a function of actual test performance (Study 3).
Copyright © 2009 SciRes. PSYCH
J. KRUGER ET AL. 37
We designed a second phase of Study 3 to put the lat-
ter half of this claim to a test. Several weeks after the
first phase of Study 3, we invited the bottom- and
top-quartile performers from this study back to the labo-
ratory for a follow-up. There, we gave each group the
tests of five of their peers to “grade” and asked them to
assess how competent each target had been in complet-
ing the test. In keeping with Prediction 2, we expected
that bottom-quartile participants would have more trou-
ble with this metacognitive task than would their top-
quartile counterparts.
This study also enabled us to explore Prediction 3, that
incompetent individuals fail to gain insight into their
own incompetence by observing the behavior of other
people. One of the ways people gain insight into their
own competence is by comparing themselves with others
(Festinger, 1954; Gilbert, Giesler, & Morris, 1995). We
reasoned that if the incompetent cannot recognize com-
petence in others, then they will be unable to make use of
this social comparison opportunity. To test this predic-
tion, we asked participants to reassess themselves after
they have seen the responses of their peers. We predicted
that despite seeing the superior test performances of their
classmates, bottom-quartile participants would continue
to believe that they had performed competently.
In contrast, we expected that top-quartile participants,
because they have the metacognitive skill to recognize
competence and incompetence in others, would revise
their self-ratings after the grading task. In particular, we
predicted that they would recognize that the perform-
ances of the five individuals they evaluated were inferior
to their own, and thus would raise their estimates of their
percentile ranking accordingly. That is, top-quartile par-
ticipants would learn from observing the responses of
others, whereas bottom-quartile participants would not.
In making these predictions, we felt that we could ac-
count for an anomaly that appeared in all three previous
studies: Despite the fact that top-quartile participants
were far more calibrated than were their less skilled
counterparts, they tended to underestimate their per-
formance relative to their peers. We felt that this mis-
calibration had a different source then the miscalibration
evidenced by bottom-quartile participants. That is,
top-quartile participants did not underestimate them-
selves because they were wrong about their own per-
formances, but rather because they were wrong about the
performances of their peers. In essence, we believe they
fell prey to the false-consensus effect (Ross, Greene, &
House, 1977). In the absence of data to the contrary, they
mistakenly assumed that their peers would tend provide
the same (correct) answers as they themselves-an im-
pression that could be immediately corrected by showing
them the performances of their peers. By examining the
extent to which competent individuals revised their abil-
ity estimates after grading the tests of their less compe-
tent peers, we could put this false-consensus interpreta-
tion to a test.
4.4.1. Method
Participants. Four to six weeks after Phase 1 of Study 3
was completed, we invited participants from the bottom-
(n = 17) and top-quartile (n = 19) back to the laboratory
in exchange for extra credit or $5. All agreed and par-
ticipated.
Procedure. On arriving at the laboratory, participants
received a packet of five tests that had been completed
by other students in the first phase of Study 3. The tests
reflected the range of performances that their peers had
achieved in the study (i.e., they had the same mean and
standard deviation), a fact we shared with participants.
We then asked participants to grade each test by indicat-
ing the number of questions they thought each of the five
test-takers had answered correctly.
After this, participants were shown their own test
again and were asked to re-rate their ability and per-
formance on the test relative to their peers, using the
same percentile scales as before. They also re-estimated
the number of test questions they had answered correctly.
4.4.2. Results and Discussion
Ability to assess competence in others. As predicted, par-
ticipants who scored in the bottom quartile were less able
to gauge the competence of others than were their
top-quartile counterparts. For each participant, we corre-
lated the grade he or she gave each test with the actual
score the five test-takers had attained. Bottomquartile par-
ticipants achieved lower correlations (mean r = .37) than
did top-quartile participants (mean r = .66), f(34) = 2.09, p
< .05.3 For an alternative measure, we summed the abso-
lute miscalibration in the grades participants gave the five
test-takers and found similar results, M = 17 A (bottom
quartile) vs. 9.2 (top quartile), f(34) = 2.49, p < .02.
Revising self-assessments. Table 1 displays the selfassess-
ments of bottom- and top-quartile performers before and
after reviewing the answers of the test-takers shown during
the grading task. As can be seen, bottom-quartile partici-
pants failed to gain insight into their own performance after
seeing the more competent choices of their peers. If any-
thing, bottom-quartile participants tended to raise their al-
ready inflated self- estimates, although not to a significant
egree, all fs(16) < 1.7. d
Copyright © 2009 SciRes. PSYCH
38 J. KRUGER ET AL.
Copyright © 2009 SciRes. PSYCH
Table 1. Self-Ratings (percentile scales) of ability and performance on test before and after grading task for bottom-and
top-quartile participants (study 3, phase 2).
Participant quartile
Bottom Top
Percentile ability Percentile test score Raw test scor Percentile ability Percentile test score Raw test score
Before 66.8 60.5 12.9 71.6 69.5 16.9
After 63.2 65.4 13.7 77.2 79.7 16.6
Difference -3.5 4.9 0.8 5.6* 10.2** -0.3
Actual 10.1 10.1 9.2 88.7 88.7 16.4
*p0.05. **p<0.01.
With top-quartile participants, a completely different
picture emerged. As predicted, after grading the test per-
formance of five of their peers, top-quartile participants
raised their estimates of their own general grammar abil-
ity, £(18) = 2.07, p = .05, and their percentile ranking on
the test, f(18) = 3.61, p < .005. These results are consis-
tent with the false-consensus effect account we have of-
fered. Armed with the ability to assess competence and
incompetence in others, participants in the top quartile
realized that the performances of the five individuals
they evaluated (and thus their peers in general) were in-
ferior to their own. As a consequence, top-quartile par-
ticipants became better calibrated with respect to their
percentile ranking. Note that a false-consensus interpre-
tation does not predict any revision for estimates of one's
raw score, as learning of the poor performance of one's
peers conveys no information about how well one has
performed in absolute terms.
Indeed, as Table 1 shows, no revision occurred, r(18)
< 1.
Summary. In sum, Phase 2 of Study 3 revealed several
effects of interests. First, consistent with Prediction 2,
participants in the bottom quartile demonstrated deficient
metacognitive skills. Compared with top-quartile per-
formers, incompetent individuals were less able to rec-
ognize competence in others. We are reminded of what
Richard Nisbett said of the late, great giant of psychol-
ogy, Amos Tversky. “The quicker you realize that Amos
is smarter than you, the smarter you yourself must be” (R.
E. Nisbett, personal communication, July 28, 1998).
This study also supported Prediction 3, that incompe-
tent individuals fail to gain insight into their own in-
competence by observing the behavior of other people.
Despite seeing the superior performances of their peers,
bottom-quartile participants continued to hold the mis-
taken impression that they had performed just fine. The
story for high-performing participants, however, was
quite different. The accuracy of their self-appraisals did
improve. We attribute this finding to a false-consensus
effect. Simply put, because top-quartile participants per-
formed so adeptly, they assumed the same was true of
their peers. After seeing the performances of others,
however, they were disabused of this notion, and thus the
they improved the accuracy of their self-appraisals. Thus,
the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an er-
ror about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the
highly competent stems from an error about others.
4.4.3. Study 4: Competence Begets Calibration
The central proposition in our argument is that incompe-
tent individuals lack the metacognitive skills that enable
them to tell how poorly they are performing, and as a
result, they come to hold inflated views of their per-
formance and ability. Consistent with this notion, we
have shown that incompetent individuals (compared with
their more competent peers) are unaware of their defi-
cient abilities (Studies 1 through 3) and show deficient
metacognitive skills (Study 3).
The best acid test of our proposition, however, is to
manipulate competence and see if this improves meta-
cognitive skills and thus the accuracy of self-appraisals
(Prediction 4). This would not only enable us to speak
directly to causality, but would help rule out the re-
gression effect alternative account discussed earlier. If
the incompetent overestimate themselves simply be-
cause their test scores are very low (the regression ef-
fect), then manipulating competence after they take the
test ought to have no effect on the accuracy of their
self-appraisals. If instead it takes competence to rec-
ognize competence, then manipulating competence
ought to enable the incompetent to recognize that they
have performed poorly. Of course, there is a paradox to
this assertion. It suggests that the way to make incom-
petent individuals realize their own incompetence is to
make them competent.
In Study 4, that is precisely what we set out to do. We
gave participants a test of logic based on the Wason se-
lection task (Wason, 1966) and asked them to assess
J. KRUGER ET AL. 39
themselves in a manner similar to that in the previous
studies. We then gave half of the participants a short
training session designed to improve their logical rea-
soning skills. Finally, we tested the metacognitive skills
of all participants by asking them to indicate which items
they had answered correctly and which incorrectly (after
McPherson & Thomas, 1989) and to rate their ability and
test performance once more.
We predicted that training would provide incompetent
individuals with the metacognitive skills needed to real-
ize that they had performed poorly and thus would help
them realize the limitations of their ability. Specifically,
we expected that the training would (a) improve the abil-
ity of the incompetent to evaluate which test problems
they had answered correctly and which incorrectly and,
in the process, (b) reduce the miscalibration of their abil-
ity estimates.
4.4.4. Method
Participants. Participants were 140 Cornell University
undergraduates from a single human development course
who earned extra credit toward their course grades for
participating. Data from 4 additional participants were
excluded because they failed to complete the dependent
measures.
Procedure. Participants completed the study in groups
of 4 to 20 individuals. On arriving at the laboratory, par-
ticipants were told that they would be given a test of
logical reasoning as part of a study of logic. The test
contained ten problems based on the Wason selection
task (Wason, 1966). Each problem described four cards
(e.g., A, 7, B, and 4) and a rule about the cards (e.g., “If
the card has a vowel on one side, then it must have an
odd number on the other”). Participants then were in-
structed to indicate which card or cards must be turned
over in order to test the rule. After taking the test, par-
ticipants were asked to rate their logical reasoning skills
and performance on the test relative to their classmates
on a percentile scale. They also estimated the number of
problems they had solved correctly.
Next, a random selection of 70 participants were given
a short logicalreasoning training packet. Modeled after
work by Cheng and her colleagues (Cheng, Holyoak,
Nisbett, & Oliver, 1986), this packet described tech-
niques for testing the veracity of logical syllogisms such
as the Wason selection task. The remaining 70 partici-
pants encountered an unrelated filler task that took about
the same amount of time (10 min) as did the training
packet.
Afterward, participants in both conditions completed a
metacognition task in which they went through their own
tests and indicated which problems they thought they had
answered correctly and which incorrectly. Participants
then re-estimated the total number of problems they had
answered correctly and compared themselves with their
peers in terms of their general logical reasoning ability
and their test performance.
4.4.5. Results and Discussion
Pretraining self-assessments. Prior to training, partici-
pants displayed a pattern of results strikingly similar to
that of the previous three studies. First, participants
overall overestimated their logical reasoning ability (M
percentile = 64) and test performance (M percentile = 61)
relative to their peers, paired fs(139) = 5.88 and 4.53,
respectively, ps < .0001. Participants also overestimated
their raw score on the test, M-6.6 (perceived) versus 4.9
(actual), r(139) = 5.95, p < .0001. As before, perceptions
of raw test score, percentile ability, and percentile test
score correlated positively with actual test performance,
rs(138) = .50, .38, and .40, respectively, ps < .0001.
Once again, individuals scoring in the bottom quartile
(n = 37) were oblivious to their poor performance. Al-
though their score on the test put them in the 13th per-
centile, they estimated their logical reasoning ability to
be in the 55fh percentile and their performance on the
test to be in the 53rd percentile. Although neither of
these estimates were significantly greater than 50,? (36)
= 1.49 and 0.81, they were considerably greater than
their actual percentile ranking, rs(36) > 10, ps < .0001.
Participants in the bottom quartile also overestimated
their raw score on the test. On average, they thought they
had answered 5.5 problems correctly. In fact, they had
answered an average of 0.3 problems correctly, r(36) =
10.75, p < .0001.
As Figure 4 illustrates, the level of overestimation
once again decreased with each step up the quartile lad-
der. As in the previous studies, participants in the top
quartile underestimated their ability. Whereas their actual
performance put them in the 90th percentile, they
thought their general logical reasoning ability fell in the
76th percentile and their performance on the test in the
79th percentile, «(27) < -3.00, ps < .001. Top-quartile
participants also underestimated their raw score on the
test (by just over 1 point), but given that they all
achieved perfect scores, this is hardly surprising.
Impact of training. Our primary hypothesis was that
training in logical reasoning would turn the incompetent
Copyright © 2009 SciRes. PSYCH
40 J. KRUGER ET AL.
participants into experts, thus providing them with the
skills necessary to recognize the limitations of their abil-
ity. Specifically, we expected that the training packet
would (a) improve the ability of the incompetent to
monitor which test problems they had answered correctly
and which incorrectly and, thus, (b) reduce the miscali-
bration of their self-impressions.
Scores on the metacognition task supported the first
part of this prediction. To assess participants' metacogni-
tive skills, we summed the number of questions each
participant accurately identified as correct or incorrect,
out of the 10 problems. Overall, participants who re-
ceived the training packet graded their own tests more
accurately (M = 9.3) than did participants who did not
receive the packet (M = 6.3), f(138) = 7.32, p < .0001, a
difference even more pronounced when looking at bot-
tom-quartile participants exclusively, Ms = 9.3 versus
3.5, ?(36) = 7.18, p < .0001. In fact, the training packet
was so successful that those who had originally scored in
the bottom quartile were just as accurate in monitoring
their test performance as were those who had initially
scored in the top quartile, Ms = 9.3 and 9.9, respectively,
f(30) = 1.38, ns. In other words, the incompetent had
become experts.
To test the second part of our prediction, we examined
the impact of training on participants' self-impressions in
a series of 2 (training: yes or no) X 2 (pre- vs. postma-
nipulation) X 4 (quartile: 1 through 4) mixed-model
analyses of variance (ANOVAs). These analyses re-
vealed the expected three-way interactions for estimates
of general ability, F(3, 132) = 2.49, p < .07, percentile-
Figure 4. Perceived logical reasoning ability and test per-
formance as a function of actual test performance (Study 4).
score on the test, F(3, 132) = 8.32, p < .001, and raw test
score, F(3, 132) = 19.67, p < .0001, indicating that the
impact of training on self-assessment depended on par-
ticipants' initial test performance. Table 2 displays how
training influenced the degree of miscalibration partici-
pants exhibited for each measure.
To examine these interactions in greater detail, we
conducted two sets of 2 (training: yes or no) X 2 (pre-
vs. postmanipulation) ANOVAs. The first looked at
partici- pants in the bottom quartile, the second at par-
ticipants in the top quartile. Among bottomquartile
participants, we found the expected interactions for
estimates of logical reasoning ability, F(l, 35) = 6.67, p
< .02, percentile test score, F(l, 35) = 14.30, p < .002,
and raw test score, F(l, 35) = 41.0, p < .0001, indicat-
ing that the change in participants' estimates of their
ability and test performance depended on whether they
had received training.
As Table 2 depicts, participants in the bottom quartile
who had received training (n = 19) became more cali-
brated in every way. Before receiving the training packet,
these participants believed that their ability fell in the
55th percentile, that their performance on the test fell in
the 51st percentile, and that they had answered 5.3 prob-
lems correctly. After training, these same participants
thought their ability fell in the 44th percentile, their test
in the 32nd percentile, and that they had answered only
1.0 problems correctly. Each of these changes from pre-
to posttraining was significant, f(18) = -2.53, -5.42, and
-6.05, respectively,/« < .03. To be sure, participants still
overestimated their logical reasoning ability, ?(18) = 5.16,
p < .0001, and their performance on the test relative to
their peers, f(18) = 3.30, p < .005, but they were consid-
erably more calibrated overall and were no longer mis-
calibrated with respect to their raw test score, ?(18) =
1.50, ns.
No such increase in calibration was found for bot-
tom- quartile participants in the untrained group (n =
18). As Table 2 shows, they initially reported that both
their ability and score on the test fell in the 55th per-
centile, and did not change those estimates in their
second set of self-ratings, all rs < 1. Their estimates of
their raw test score, however, did change-but in the
wrong direction. In their initial ratings, they estimated
that they had solved 5.8 problems correctly. On their
second ratings, they raised that estimate to 6.3, t(17) =
.62, p < .02. 2
Copyright © 2009 SciRes. PSYCH
J. KRUGER ET AL. 41
Copyright © 2009 SciRes. PSYCH
Table 2. Self-Ratings in percentile terms of ability and performance for trained and untrained participants (study 4).
Untrained Trained
Rating Bottom(n=18) Second(n=15) Third(n=22) Top(n=15) Bottom(n=19) Second(n=20) Third(n=18) Top(n=13)
Self-ratings of percentile ability
Before 55.0 58.5 67.2 78.3 54.7 59.3 68.6 73.4
After 55.8 56.3 68.1 81.9 44.3 52.3 68.6 81.4
Difference 0.8 -2.1 0.9 3.6 -10.4* -7.0* 0.1 8.0
Actual 11.9 32.2 62.9 90.0 14.5 41.0 69.1 90.0
Self-ratings of percentile test performance
Before 55.2 57.9 57.5 83.1 50.5 53.4 61.9 74.8
After 54.3 58.8 59.8 84.3 31.9 46.8 69.7 86.8
Difference -0.8 0.9 2.3 1.3 -18.6*** -6.6* 7.8 12.1*
Actual 11.9 32.2 62.9 90.0 14.5 41.0 69.1 90.0
Self-ratings of raw test performance
Before 5.8 5.4 6.9 9.3 5.3 5.4 7.0 8.5
After 6.3 6.1 7.5 9.6 1.0 4.1 8.2 9.9
Difference 0.6* 0.7 0.6* 0.3 -4.3*** -1.4** 1.2** 1.5*
Actual 0.2 2.7 6.7 10.0 3.3 3.3 7.9 10.0
For individuals who scored in the top quartile, training
had a very different effect. As we did for their bottom-
quartile counterparts, we conducted a set of 2 (training:
yes or no) X 2 (pre- vs. postmanipulation) ANOVAs.
These analyses revealed significant interactions for esti-
mates of test performance, F(l, 26) = 6.39, p < .025, and
raw score, F(l, 26) = 4.95, p < .05, but not for estimates
of general ability, F(l, 26) = 1.03, ns.
As Table 2 illustrates, top-quartile participants in the
training condition thought their score fell in the 78th
percentile prior to receiving the training materials. Af-
terward, they increased that estimate to the 87th percen-
tile, t{\2) = 2.66, p < .025. Topquartile participants also
raised their estimates of their percentile ability, t(l2) =
1.91, p <.09, and raw test score, r(12)=2.99,/> < .025,
although only the latter difference was significant. In
contrast, top-quartile participants in the control condition
did not revise their estimates on any of these measures, rs
< 1. Although not predicted, these revisions are perhaps
not surprising in light of the fact that top-quartile par-
ticipants in the training condition received validation that
the logical reasoning they had used was perfectly correct.
The mediational role of metacognitive skills. We have
argued that less competent individuals overestimate their
abilities because they lack the metacognitive skills to
recognize the error of their own decisions. In other words,
we believe that deficits in metacognitive skills mediate
the link between low objective performance and inflated
ability assessment. The next two analyses were designed
to test this mediational relationship more explicitly.
In the first analysis, we examined objective perform-
ance, metacognitive skill, and the accuracy of self-ap-
praisals in a manner suggested by Baron and Kenny
(1986). According to their procedure, metacognitive skill
would be shown to mediate the link between incompe-
tence and inflated self-assessment if (a) low levels of
objective performance were associated with inflated
self-assessment, (b) low levels of objective performance
were associated with deficits in metacognitive skill, and
(c) deficits in metacognitive skill were associated with
inflated self-assessment even after controlling for objec-
tive performance. Focusing on the 70 participants in the
untrained group, we found considerable evidence of me-
diation. First, as reported earlier, participants' test per-
formance was a strong predictor of how much they over-
estimated their ability and test performance. An addi-
tional analysis revealed that test performance was also
strongly related to metacognitive skill, /3(68) = .75, p
< .0001. Finally, and most important, deficits in meta-
cognitive skill predicted inflated selfassessment on the
all three self-ratings we examined (general logical rea-
soning ability, comparative performance on the test, and
absolute score on the test) -even after objective per-
formance on the test was held constant. This was true for
the first set of self-appraisals, /3s(67) = -.40 to - .49, ps
< .001, as well as the second, J3s(67) = -.41 to -.50,ps
< .001.
Given these results, one could wonder whether the
impact of training on the self-assessments of participants
in the bottom quartile was similarly mediated by meta-
cognitive skills. To find out, we conducted a mediational
analysis focusing on bottom quartile participants in both
trained and untrained groups. Here too, all three media-
tional links were supported. As previously reported, bot-
42 J. KRUGER ET AL.
tom-quartile participants who received training (a) pro-
vided less inflated self-assessments and (b) evidenced
better metacognitive skills than those who did not re-
ceive training. Completing this analysis, regression
analyses revealed that metacognitive skills predicted
inflated self-assessment with participants' training condi-
tion held constant, £(34)s = -.68 to -.97,ps < .01.
In fact, training itself failed to predict miscalibration
when bottomquartile participants' metacognitive skills
were taken into account, j8s(34) = .00 to .25, ns. These
analyses suggest that the benefit of training on the accu-
racy of self-assessment was achieved by means of im-
proved metacognitive skills.
Summary. Thomas Jefferson once said, “he who
knows best best knows how little he knows.” In Study 4,
we obtained experimental support for this assertion. Par-
ticipants scoring in the bottom quartile on a test of logic
grossly overestimated their test performance-but became
significantly more calibrated after their logical reasoning
skills were improved. In contrast, those in the bottom
quartile who did not receive this aid continued to hold
the mistaken impression that they had performed just
fine. Moreover, mediational analyses revealed that it was
by means of their improved metacognitive skills that
incompetent individuals arrived at their more accurate
self-appraisals.
5. General Discussion
In the neurosciences, practitioners and researchers occa-
sionally come across the curious malady of anosognosia.
Caused by certain types of damage to the right side of the
brain, anosognosia leaves people paralyzed on the left
side of their body. But more than that, when doctors
place a cup in front of such patients and ask them to pick
it up with their left hand, patients not only fail to comply
but also fail to understand why. When asked to explain
their failure, such patients might state that they are tired,
that they did not hear the doctor's instructions, or that
they did not feel like responding-but never that they are
suffering from paralysis. In essence, anosognosia not
only causes paralysis, but also the inability to realize that
one is paralyzed (D'Amasio, 1994).
In this article, we proposed a psychological analogue
to anosognosia. We argued that incompetence, like
anosognosia, not only causes poor performance but also
the inability to recognize that one's performance is poor.
Indeed, across the four studies, participants in the bottom
quartile not only overestimated themselves, but thought
they were above-average, Z = 4.64, p < .0001. In a
phrase, Thomas Gray was right: Ignorance is bliss-at
least when it comes to assessments of one's own ability.
What causes this gross overestimation? Studies 3 and
4 pointed to a lack of metacognitive skills among less
skilled participants. Bottom-quartile participants were
less successful than were topquartile participants in the
metacognitive tasks of discerning what one has answered
correctly versus incorrectly (Study 4) and distinguishing
superior from inferior performances on the part of one's
peers (Study 3). More conclusively, Study 4 showed that
improving participants' metacognitive skills also im-
proved the accuracy of their self-appraisals. Note that
these findings are inconsistent with a simple regression
effect interpretation of our results, which does not predict
any changes in self-appraisals given different levels of
metacognitive skill. Regression also cannot explain the
fact that bottom-quartile participants were nearly 4 times
more miscalibrated than their top-quartile counterparts.
Study 4 also revealed a paradox. It suggested that one
way to make people recognize their incompetence is to
make them competent. Once we taught bottom-quartile
participants how to solve Wason selection tasks correctly,
they also gained the metacognitive skills to recognize the
previous error of their ways. Of course, and herein lies
the paradox, once they gained the metacognitive skills to
recognize their own incompetence, they were no longer
incompetent. “To have such knowledge,” as Miller (1993)
put it in the quote that began this article, “would already
be to remedy a good portion of the offense.”
5.1. The Burden of Expertise
Although our emphasis has been on the miscalibration of
incompetent individuals, along the way we discovered
that highly competent individuals also show some sys-
tematic bias in their self appraisals. Across the four sets
of studies, participants in the top quartile tended to un-
derestimate their ability and test performance relative to
their peers, Zs = -5.66 and -4.77, respectively, ps < .0001.
What accounts for this underestimation? Here, too, the
regression effect seems a likely candidate: Just as ex-
tremely low performances are likely to be associated
with slightly higher perceptions of performance, so too
are extremely high performances likely to be associated
with slightly lower perceptions of performance.
As it turns out, however, our data point to a more psy-
chological explanation. Specifically, top-quartile partici-
pants appear to have fallen prey to a false-consensus
Copyright © 2009 SciRes. PSYCH
J. KRUGER ET AL. 43
effect (Ross et al, 1977). Simply put, these participants
assumed that because they performed so well, their peers
must have performed well likewise. This would have led
top-quartile participants to underestimate their compara-
tive abilities (i.e., how their general ability and test per-
formance compare with that of their peers), but not their
absolute abilities (i.e., their raw score on the test). This
was precisely the pattern of data we observed: Compared
with participants falling in the third quartile, participants
in the top quartile were an average of 23% less calibrated
in terms of their comparative performance on the test-but
16% more calibrated in terms of their objective per-
formance on the test.
More conclusive evidence came from Phase 2 of
Study 3. Once top-quartile participants learned how
poorly their peers had performed, they raised their self-
appraisals to more accurate levels. We have argued that
unskilled individuals suffer a dual burden:
Not only do they perform poorly, but they fail to real-
ize it. It thus appears that extremely competent individu-
als suffer a burden as well. Although they perform com-
petently, they fail to realize that their proficiency is not
necessarily shared by their peers.
5.2. Incompetence and the Failure of Feedback
One puzzling aspect of our results is how the incompe-
tent fail, through life experience, to learn that they are
unskilled. This is not a new puzzle. Sullivan, in 1953,
marveled at “the failure of learning which has left their
capacity for fantastic, self-centered delusions so utterly
unaffected by a life-long history of educative events” (p.
80). With that observation in mind, it is striking that our
student participants overestimated their standing on aca-
demically oriented tests as familiar to them as grammar
and logical reasoning. Although our analysis suggests
that incompetent individuals are unable to spot their poor
performances themselves, one would have thought nega-
tive feedback would have been inevitable at some point
in their academic career. So why had they not learned?
One reason is that people seldom receive negative
feedback about their skills and abilities from others in
everyday life (Blumberg, 1972; Darley & Fazio, 1980;
Goffman, 1955; Matlin & Stang, 1978; Tesser & Rosen,
1975). Even young children are familiar with the notion
that “if you do not have something nice to say, don't say
anything at all.” Second, the bungled robbery attempt of
McArthur Wheeler not withstanding, some tasks and
settings preclude people from receiving self-correcting
information that would reveal the suboptimal nature of
their decisions (Einhorn, 1982). Third, even if people
receive negative feedback, they still must come to an
accurate understanding of why that failure has occurred.
The problem with failure is that it is subject to more at-
tributional ambiguity than success. For success to occur,
many things must go right: The person must be skilled,
apply effort, and perhaps be a bit lucky. For failure to
occur, the lack of any one of these components is suffi-
cient. Because of this, even if people receive feedback
that points to a lack of skill, they may attribute it to some
other factor (Snyder, Higgins, & Stucky, 1983; Snyder,
Shenkel, & Lowery, 1977).
Finally, Study 3 showed that incompetent individuals
may be unable to take full advantage of one particular
kind of feedback: social comparison. One of the ways
people gain insight into their own competence is by
watching the behavior of others (Festinger, 1954; Gilbert,
Giesler & Morris, 1995). In a perfect world, everyone
could see the judgments and decisions that other people
reach, accurately assess how competent those decisions
are, and then revise their view of their own competence
by comparison. However, Study 3 showed that incompe-
tent individuals are unable to take full advantage of such
opportunities. Compared with their more expert peers,
they were less able to spot competence when they saw it,
and as a consequence, were less able to learn that their
ability estimates were incorrect.
5.3. Limitations of the Present Analysis
We do not mean to imply that people are always unaware
of their incompetence. We doubt whether many of our
readers would dare take on Michael Jordan in a game of
one-on-one, challenge Eric Clapton with a session of
dueling guitars, or enter into a friendly wager on the golf
course with Tiger Woods. Nor do we mean to imply that
the metacognitive failings of the incompetent are the
only reason people overestimate their abilities relative to
their peers. We have little doubt that other factors such as
motivational biases (Alicke, 1985; Brown, 1986; Taylor
& Brown, 1988), self-serving trait definitions (Dunning
& Cohen, 1992; Dunning et al., 1989), selective recall of
past behavior (Sanitioso, Kunda, & Fong, 1990), and the
tendency to ignore the proficiencies of others (Klar,
Medding, & Sarel, 1996; Kruger, 1999) also play a role.
Indeed, although bottom-quartile participants accounted
for the bulk of the above-average effects observed in our
studies (overestimating their ability by an average of 50
Copyright © 2009 SciRes. PSYCH
44 J. KRUGER ET AL.
percentile points), there was also a slight tendency for
the other quartiles to overestimate themselves (by just
over 6 percentile points)-a fact our metacognitive analy-
sis cannot explain.
When can the incompetent be expected to overesti-
mate themselves because of their lack of skill? Although
our data do not speak to this issue directly, we believe
the answer depends on the domain under consideration.
Some domains, like those examined in this article, are
those in which knowledge about the domain confers
competence in the domain. Individuals with a great un-
derstanding of the rules of grammar or inferential logic,
for example, are by definition skilled linguists and logi-
cians. In such domains, lack of skill implies both the
inability to perform competently as well as the inability
to recognize competence, and thus a¥e also the domains
in which the incompetent are likely to be unaware of
their lack of skill.
In other domains, however, competence is not wholly
dependent on knowledge or wisdom, but depends on
other factors, such as physical skill. One need not look
far to find individuals with an impressive understanding
of the strategies and techniques of basketball, for in-
stance, yet who could not “dunk” to save their lives.
(These people are called coaches.) Similarly, art apprais-
ers make a living evaluating fine calligraphy, but know
they do not possess the steady hand and patient nature
necessary to produce the work themselves. In such do-
mains, those in which knowledge about the domain does
not necessarily translate into competence in the domain,
one can become acutely-even painfully-aware of the lim-
its of one's ability. In golf, for instance, one can know all
about the fine points of course management, club selec-
tion, and effective “swing thoughts,” but one's incompe-
tence will become sorely obvious when, after watching
one's more able partner drive the ball 250 yards down the
fairway, one proceeds to hit one's own ball 150 yards
down the fairway, 50 yards to the right, and onto the
hood of that 1993 Ford Taurus.
Finally, in order for the incompetent to overestimate
themselves, they must satisfy a minimal threshold of
knowledge, theory, or experience that suggests to them-
selves that they can generate correct answers. In some
domains, there are clear and unavoidable reality con-
straints that prohibits this notion. For example, most
people have no trouble identifying their inability to
translate Slovenian proverbs, reconstruct an 8-cylinder
engine, or diagnose acute disseminated encephalomye-
litis. In these domains, without even an intuition of how
to respond, people do not overestimate their ability. In-
stead, if people show any bias at all, it is to rate them-
selves as worse than their peers (Kruger, 1999).
5.4. Relation to Work on Overconfidence
The finding that people systematically overestimate their
ability and performance calls to mind other work on
calibration in which people make a prediction and esti-
mate the likelihood that the prediction will prove correct.
Consistently, the confidence with which people make
their predictions far exceeds their accuracy rates (e.g.,
Dunning, Griffin, Milojkovic, & Ross, 1990; Vallone,
Griffin, Lin, & Ross, 1990; Lichtenstein, Fischhoff, &
Phillips, 1982).
Our data both complement and extend this work. In
particular, work on overconfidence has shown that peo-
ple are more miscalibrated when they face difficult tasks,
ones for which they fail to possess the requisite knowl-
edge, than they are for easy tasks, ones for which they do
possess that knowledge (Lichtenstein & Fischhoff, 1977).
Our work replicates this point not by looking at proper-
ties of the task but at properties of the person. Whether
the task is difficult because of the nature of the task or
because the person is unskilled, the end result is a large
degree of overconfidence.
Our data also provide an empirical rebuttal to a cri-
tique that has been leveled at past work on overconfi-
dence. Gigerenzer (1991) and his colleagues (Gigerenzer,
Hoffrage, & Kleinbolting, 1991) have argued that the
types of probability estimates used in traditional over-
confidence work-namely, those concerning the occur-
rence of single events-are fundamentally flawed. Ac-
cording to the critique, probabilities do not apply to sin-
gle events but only to multiple ones. As a consequence,
if people make probability estimates in more appropriate
contexts (such as by estimating the total number of test
items answered correctly), “cognitive illusions” such as
overconfidence disappear. Our results call this critique
into question. Across the three studies in which we have
relevant data, participants consistently overestimated the
number of items they had answered correctly, Z = 4.94, p
< .0001.
6. Concluding Remarks
In sum, we present this article as an exploration into why
people tend to hold overly optimistic and miscalibrated
views about themselves. We propose that those with lim-
Copyright © 2009 SciRes. PSYCH
J. KRUGER ET AL. 45
ited knowledge in a domain suffer a dual burden: Not
only do they reach mistaken conclusions and make re-
grettable errors, but their incompetence robs them of the
ability to realize it. Although we feel we have done a
competent job in making a strong case for this analysis,
studying it empirically, and drawing out relevant impli-
cations, our thesis leaves us with one haunting worry that
we cannot vanquish. That worry is that this article may
contain faulty logic, methodological errors, or poor
communication. Let us assure our readers that to the ex-
tent this article is imperfect, it is not a sin we have com-
mitted knowingly.
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