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Caffeinated Coder A Grande, Triple Shot, Non-Fat Core Dump by Russell Ball
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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
This leads me to the following thoughts:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
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.

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Posted on Tuesday, November 20, 2007 12:42 AM Becoming A Better Developer | Back to top


Comments on this post: Is That Juice On Your Face?

# re: Is That Juice On Your Face?
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This also explains why management is a renewable resource.
Left by Dewayne Christensen on Nov 20, 2007 8:13 AM

# re: Is That Juice On Your Face?
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Yes, this study does add a whole new level of credibility to those pointy hair boss Dilbert cartoons.
Left by Russell Ball on Nov 20, 2007 8:55 AM

# re: Is That Juice On Your Face?
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Rusell,

Good post and agree with you totally.Always learning,down to earth,commitment,hardwork should not get missed any time in one's life.

Thanks
Prashant jalasutram
http://prashantjalasutram.blogspot.com/
Left by Prashant Jalasutram on Nov 29, 2007 11:53 PM

# re: Is That Juice On Your Face?
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So..... Idiots don't know they're really idiots?

Thanks, Captain Obvious!
Left by Erik on Nov 30, 2007 1:40 AM

# re: Is That Juice On Your Face?
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@Eric,

That's one way of saying it.

Here's another way...Idiots are not only unaware of their own idiocy, but they are likely to think that everyone else is an idiot as well.

So I ask, how do you know for certain that YOU'RE not an idiot? Besides having your obvious unflappable belief, you may even have a dozen examples in your head of your competence that prove beyond a shadow of a doubt in your mind that you are not an idiot. However, how do you know that you are not falling prey to the "self-fulfilling prophecy" bias and only registering the 10% of the times you are doing competent things while ignoring the 90% of times that you do incompetent things?

It was definitely obvious to me that idiots would be oblivious. But what stopped to make me think was the fact that I may also be an idiot. If you don't have the sense to at least honestly ask yourself that from time to time, then that may be the strongest evidence yet of your true status.

Humbly Yours,
Captain Obvious
Left by Captain Obvious on Nov 30, 2007 5:51 AM

# re: Is That Juice On Your Face?
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Writing this blog does not imply you are competent.
Left by RV on Nov 30, 2007 10:47 AM

# re: Is That Juice On Your Face?
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You should also check out "Skilled or Unskilled, but Still Unaware of It" which suggests that 'competent' people can be victim to the same effect as the difficulty of the task increases.
Left by Rob Crowther on Nov 30, 2007 1:11 PM

# re: Is That Juice On Your Face?
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@Rob - Thanks for the link! I'll have to do a follow up post on that article.
Left by Russell Ball on Dec 04, 2007 8:50 PM

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