A psychology study entitled Unskilled And Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Leads To Inflated Self-Assessments opens with the following amusing 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 (Fuocco, 1996).
The paper then goes on to describe the results of four studies which led researchers to conclude the following:
This leads me to the following thoughts:
- Incompetent people will tend to grossly overestimate their skills and abilities. A part of the study, the subjects were given various tests and then asked to predict their scores and relative rankings. People in the bottom quartile overestimated their performance by an average of 45-50% while people in the top quartile actually underestimated their skills.
- Incompetent individuals fail to gain insight into their own incompetence by observing the behavior of other people. After being allowed to review the test results of their peers, the estimates of the bottom quartile actually worsened while the estimates of the top quartile improved. This led researches to conclude that the mis-calibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the mis-calibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.
- The way to make incompetent individuals realize their own incompetence is to make them competent. In the last study, researches found that the estimation skills of the bottom quartile dramatically improved if they were given training in the domain knowledge of the test. Not only did their scores improve, but they finally became aware of their short-comings relative to their peers and revised their prior estimates downward.
As a side observation, I couldn't help but be impressed with the rigor with which these studies were conducted. It made me realize that there is a close correlation between proving a scientific hypothesis and debugging software. It is one thing to think you know the cause of an observed phenomena or an erratic, opaque bug, but it takes carefully planned and executed tests in order to adequately prove it.
- If you really did have juice on your face, you're probably wouldn't know it. This is a sobering thought. As Darwin said, "ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge". In other words, if you are feeling particularly confident, then it is a good sign that you have some more learning to do.
- The best way to ensure there is not juice on your face is to constantly seek feedback and learn: I like to think of this as a Continuous Integration for the mind. In order to become competent, I need to constantly feed new ideas and skills to my mental compiler and then unit-test them through rigorous community and peer feedback.