The Illusion of Skill

Those who know me, know I tend to repeat ideas I like a lot.  One of those ideas is the Kruger-Dunning Effect.  I think it has a tremendous explanatory power in understanding the world.  Fundamentally, this effect seeks to understand deficiencies in cognition, in understanding the world.  I’ve argued that this effect explains why it is our schools don’t succeed as we want them to: leaders are often not up to the task, but by their own lights, they certainly are. The problem: their lights are wrong.

A friend passed on a recent article Don’t Blink! The Hazards of Confidence, by Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics, in the New York Times.  Kahneman explains his experiences struggling with humanity’s persistent “illusion of skill” – our tendency to exaggerate our own decision-making, cognition, and perception abilities, noting that “Overconfidence arises because people are often blind to their own blindness.” After finding out, during an exercise in his formative years, that he and his team had failed miserably at predicting the performance of future military leaders:

“I thought that what was happening to us was remarkable. The statistical evidence of our failure should have shaken our confidence in our judgments of particular candidates, but it did not. It should also have caused us to moderate our predictions, but it did not. We knew as a general fact that our predictions were little better than random guesses, but we continued to feel and act as if each particular prediction was valid. I was reminded of visual illusions, which remain compelling even when you know that what you see is false. I was so struck by the analogy that I coined a term for our experience: the illusion of validity.”

He calls the phenomenon WYSIATI:

‘“What you see is all there is.” We had made up a story from the little we knew but had no way to allow for what we did not know about the individual’s future, which was almost everything that would actually matter. When you know as little as we did, you should not make extreme predictions like “He will be a star.” The stars we saw on the obstacle field were most likely accidental flickers, in which a coincidence of random events — like who was near the wall — largely determined who became a leader. Other events — some of them also random — would determine later success in training and combat.’

I think of many instances that validate this view: Presidential debates, job interviews, and hasty performance evaluations to name a few.  How many of us have worked at institutions who have hired “stars,” only to find later that they were mediocre – or worse, harmful towards the long-term success of the organization.

His conclusion is note perfect: “In general, however, you should not take assertive and confident people at their own evaluation unless you have independent reason to believe that they know what they are talking about. Unfortunately, this advice is difficult to follow: overconfident professionals sincerely believe they have expertise, act as experts and look like experts. You will have to struggle to remind yourself that they may be in the grip of an illusion.”  We ignore this advice at our peril.

Here’s Kahneman in his Ted Talk on experience versus memory:

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