In Praise of Cluelessness

According to a study in the December issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (not available online, but the New York TimesErica Goode deftly summarized it on Jan. 18), a fundamental characteristic of incompetent people is their inability to recognize that they are incompetent. The study begins with the following slapstick anecdote:

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 surveillance 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 impression that rubbing one’s face with lemon juice rendered it invisible to videotape cameras.

To test the principle of which the endearingly clueless Wheeler’s story is an extreme example, the study’s authors, Justin Kruger and David Dunning of Cornell, took a bunch of Cornell students and had them perform four tasks and then estimate how well they’d done at each. In the first, they were asked to assess how funny they found a series of jokes of markedly varied funniness (as graded by a team of eight professional comedians). In the second, they were asked to take a logical-reasoning test. In the third, they were asked to take a grammar test. In the fourth, they were given another logical-reasoning test, but this time some of those tested were subsequently given about 10 minutes’ worth of training in logical reasoning and then asked to re-estimate how well they’d done on the test. In every instance but the last, the worst scorers guessed that they’d done better than average. (Participants in the fourth study were able to assess their abilities more realistically, but only by becoming less incompetent.)

Kruger and Dunning compare people’s inability to recognize their incompetence to a neurological disability called anosognosia. Sufferers of anosognosia are paralyzed on the left side of their body but don’t seem to understand that fact; when asked to pick something up with their left hand, they will decline by saying they’re too tired, or didn’t hear the question, or don’t want to. Kruger and Dunning’s finding also calls to mind the quotation from Soren Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Deaththat serves as the epigraph to Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer: “[T]he specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair.” Substitute the word “depression” for “despair” and you have a cornerstone of modern psychotherapy.

What the study’s authors don’t examine is whether cluelessness, while quite often a bad thing for the individual, is a good thing for society. Kruger and Dunning are careful to point out that in certain circumstances, it’s impossible for all but the clinically deluded to ignore evidence about one’s relative competence: “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.” These individuals’ superior skill, regularly demonstrated in public, is simply too great to ignore. And as their study showed, when incompetent people are given a chance to wise up a bit, they do acquire some retrospective understanding of their limitations.

The benefits of cluelessness come from living in a society where people take an optimistic view of life. Political speechifyers are always marveling about the bounteous opportunity of American life. What rarely gets discussed frankly is how much the economy depends on people perceiving that opportunity to be somewhat greater than it really is. Here is Chatterbox’s former U.S. News boss James Fallows in his 1989 book More Like Us:

Overoptimism is in fact the common theme in many of the most purely American phenomena: the myth that anybody can grow up to be president, that immigrants’ children can be doctors and lawyers, that you can turn your franchise into a fortune, that salesman can make it on a smile and a handshake. [David] McClelland [author of The Achieving Society ] said that the “famous self-confidence” of businessmen–really, their refusal to face discouraging facts–was an important tool for economic development. One of the best examples was the completion of America’s transcontinental railroads in the nineteenth century. “When they were built they could hardly be justified in economic terms,” McClelland said. “They would never have been economically justified if the country had not been ‘swarming’ … with thousands of small entrepreneurs who repeatedly overestimated their chances of success, but who collectively managed to settle and develop the West while many of them individually were failing.”

The Internet economy is a more contemporary example of this phenomenon: Surely most people trying to strike it rich in this gold rush will fail, but right now their buoyant optimism is keeping the stock market high and making America wealthier. Long live cluelessness!