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American Idolatry: So Bad You Just Gotta Be Good

Those tone-deaf belters humiliating themselves for our amusement help explain why we think we’re better than the experts.
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Here in Williamstown, Mass., where I live, there is a contractor who won’t work with you if you watch shows about construction on HGTV. He simply got fed up with being told how to do his job by people who think they know what they’re talking about but haven’t got a clue.

Being unskilled is an obvious problem. But when we truly lack skill, we suffer a dual burden: We do not have the skills to perform well, and we don't even have the skill required to tell whether we're performing well or not. This problem affects us everywhere, in education, crime, politics, construction, government, relationships and beyond. It's particularly poignant during the first weeks of American Idol, which showcase two types of amazing singers: Great singers, and singers who are so terrible and tone-deaf that they think they’re great.

Justin Kruger and David Dunning discussed this problem, which they call being "unskilled and unaware," in a classic article. They begin with an amazing story:

“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.”

McArthur Wheeler made a terrible decision, but he also suffered from a failure of metacognition — that is, the ability to make judgments about one's own cognition. Deciding to rob a bank undisguised is a bad decision; that's a cognitive problem. Being so unskilled that one cannot tell good ideas from bad ideas is a metacognitive problem.

THINK AGAIN: A user's guide to the science of the mind

THINK AGAIN: A user's guide to the science of the mind

Kruger and Dunning found that the least skilled participants in their studies rated themselves just as highly as the best participants. In fact, when judging their ability to do logic problems, the bottom 25 percent of subjects judged themselves to be better than the middle 50 percent. Apparently, the best performers were justifiably confident and those in the middle group were good enough to recognize their own fallibility, but the worst performers were so bad they didn't even know they were bad.

The same thing happens on American Idol. The best singers are confident. The singers in the middle of the pack are less confident. But when we get to the bottom of the talent pyramid, confidence seems to surge up again. The worst singers are unaware that they are terrible, because they are too terrible to know it.

This may help explain why the most outraged losers on American Idol are sometimes the worst singers. If you have a tin ear and can’t hear the difference between your squawking and Carrie Underwood, you'll probably be outraged to get cut.

Still, a question remains: Why do the worst American Idol contestants sometimes think they're the best? Having a tin ear should make you feel as good as everyone else. But why would it make you think you're better? One obvious reason is that the producers of American Idol only show us a small percentage of contestants who make good television (and unjustified outrage seems to make the cut). But there's something more fundamental at stake: People love themselves a little too much.

Human overconfidence has been demonstrated in myriad ways; for example, almost everyone thinks they are an above-average driver, when, of course, only 50 percent of us can be above average. We also think we're better than most people at lots of other well-practiced tasks, like using a computer mouse. We all seem to think we live in Lake Wobegon, where all of the children are above average.

Thus, there are two problems. First, when we are unskilled, we often lack the tools to recognize our own ineptness. Second, with no basis for judgment, overconfidence steps in to fill the void.

This problem is very widespread. For example, as I was writing this essay a few weeks back, I got a phone call saying our children's school was opening two hours late today because of cold weather. My first reaction was: If I ran that school, things would get done right! I literally shouted, “They're morons!” to my wife.

Of course, I know nothing about running a school. I'm not even skilled enough to know what the problems are, much less how to solve them (turns out the busses wouldn’t start in -15 degree weather). But that didn’t stop me. I interrupted writing a rant against being unskilled, unaware, and overconfident to be exactly that.

Of course I'm not unique. Most of us have thought, at some point about some group: “They're all morons! I'd do it much better!” This sentiment is especially popular when people think about their government. In fact, a number of new congresspeople were elected on the "They're Morons" platform in 2010.

But this is an attitude that we should be very careful about. Those of us who do not have experience running a government are unskilled, and we’re probably just as unaware. We may be tone-deaf singers yelling about how we are so much better than those Washington insiders. Who, of course, used to yell about how much better they were than the insiders who preceded them. Running a government requires experience and skill; most of us are unaware of what that skill is all about.

There are a million other examples. When fans yell at coaches for making terrible decisions, they're often unskilled, unaware and overconfident. When a student complains her D should have been an A because it's just as good as her friend's A paper, she is probably unable to see the difference between a good paper and what she produced (and this kind of complaint is not uncommon).

So, if you catch yourself feeling like you're pretty good at something despite your lack of experience, or if you want to give advice to an expert, or if you feel sure you could do a much better job of X than whoever is doing it, just make sure you check your skill level. If you're unskilled, chances are you might be so unskilled you don't even know how bad you are.