My work also identifies factors that limit our ability to know when we have made a mistake and, consequently, to understand when modesty might be merited.
Limited Ability to Recognize Mistakes
Recognizing mistakes is a non-trivial task and, often, one that requires competence. As many teachers can attest, failing students are often surprised to learn that they have performed poorly. My work shows that the knowledge and understanding that characterizes competence is also necessary to distinguish strong from weak performance. Thus, those who lack skill also lack the knowledge necessary to recognize when they make mistakes. As a consequence, the unskilled are often vastly overconfident (Ehrlinger et al, 2008; Dunning, Johnson, Ehrlinger, & Kruger, 2003). Without the knowledge necessary to recognize that they have made mistakes, the unskilled are simply unequipped to make accurate self-judgments (Ehrlinger et al, 2008).
Limited Availability of Negative Feedback
One way that people learn about themselves — about their triumphs and their mistakes — is through social feedback. However, people hear far more positive than negative feedback. While this positivity bias carries many benefits, it might also keep people from learning about their mistakes and, consequently, contribute to overly positive self-judgments (Fay*, Jordan*, & Ehrlinger, 2012). To test this hypothesis, I asked participants to tell jokes to a partner or to explain their viewpoint on a controversial topic. As one might expect, participants’ performance quality varied greatly. Some told great jokes while others were less skilled. However, the feedback that participants received was surprisingly uniform. The best jokes were rewarded with laughter, but so were many jokes that were terrible. As a result, participants were overconfident when estimating how positively they were perceived. My students and I demonstrated that this overconfidence stemmed directly from polite feedback offered by partners, above and beyond any error stemming from participants’ self-views and motivated biases (Ehrlinger, Fay*, & Goplin*, Under Review). Further, we found that Israeli participants did less to filter their negative impressions from others than did those in the United States. As a result, Israeli recipients of feedback had self-judgments that were more accurate and less overconfident than those made by American participants (Ehrlinger & Reizer, In Prep).
*denote current or former graduate student co-authors
Ehrlinger, J. (2008) Skill level, Self-views and self-theories as sources of error in self-assessment. Compass: Social and Personality Psychology, 2(1), 382-398.
Dunning, D. A., Johnson, K. L., Ehrlinger, J., & Kruger, J. (2003). Why people fail to recognize their own incompetence. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12, 83-87. doi:10.1111/1467-8721.01235. [pdf]
Fay*, A. J., Jordan*, A. H., & Ehrlinger, J. (2012). How social norms promote misleading social feedback and inaccurate self-assessment. Compass: Social and Personality Psychology, 6(2), 206-216. doi:10.1111/j.1751-9004.2011.00420.x. [pdf]
Ehrlinger, J., Fay*, A. J., & Goplen*, J. (2016). Polite social feedback as a contributor to overconfidence. Manuscript Under Review. [request a copy]
Ehrlinger, J. & Reizer, A. (2016). How cultural differences help to illuminate polite social feedback as a mechanism for overconfidence. Manuscript in Preparation, Washington State University. [request a copy]
Ehrlinger, J., Johnson, K. L., Banner*, M., Dunning, D. A., & Kruger, J. (2008). Why the unskilled are unaware: Further explorations of (absent) self-insight among the incompetent. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 105(1), 98-121. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2007.05.002. [pdf]
Ehrlinger J. & Dunning, D. A. (2003). How chronic self-views influence (and mislead) estimates of performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 5-17. doi:10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.199. [pdf]