Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Illusion of Superiority

This week is a break from that online TA job training I’ve been going on about. This is the week the trainers prepare feedback for us, which we will receive at the beginning of the final week of training. AND THEN, the university will mull over who they want to hire. We can expect to be contacted three to four weeks after we complete the training, and that might only be a “thank you for participating . . .”

One of the training exercises over the last couple weeks was to participate in a discussion forum with the other TA candidates. I learned that I’m training with published writers, professors, business managers, you name it. I think the job starts at something like $15-20 an hour, so it was both validating and concerning to hear about the backgrounds of the other applicants . . . especially since it pays less than half of what I used to make, and I never dreamed of being a TA at 39.

But I WANT THIS JOB SO BAD. If I get it, I’ll start taking up your precious time with rants about the daily life of an online TA and what it’s like being a fully employed mom. I know, sounds enthralling! So, I’m really hoping I get the job for everyone’s sake. I thought it would be in the bag with my 12 years of teaching experience and credential. But then I started reading about another candidate, author of blah-blah-blah grammar book, and another one who has just as much teaching experience as I do but at the college level. Sounds like I’m pretty average in the pool.

This situation brings to mind my favorite psychological concept, the Dunning-Kruger Effect. I first read about it 10 years ago, when I had been teaching at the alternative high school for a couple years. I was starting to see good results in the classroom after much trial and error. The article grabbed my attention, partly because I had been working with a lot of very confident people who crashed and burned. I can honestly say in the early years of that job, I was the least confident of the teaching bunch and after a few years, the most successful.

The other reason the Dunning-Kruger Effect interests me is that I have a tendency to be fooled by false confidence in others. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve hung onto someone’s every word, thinking I'm listening to Someone Who Knows. But no, it's really Someone Who Thinks S/he Knows or Someone Just Pretending or Someone Mentally Unstable. In the times I've been in charge of hiring, I've given the job to the best talker of the bunch. After paying for my lack of judgement a few too many times, I think I got it. I THINK I can spot true competence. And it usually has nothing to do with who's the smoothest talker . . . unless we're talking about being a competent smooth talker.

Here’s how Wikipedia explains the Kruger-Dunning Effect:

Kruger and Dunning noted . . . in skills as diverse as reading comprehension, operating a motor vehicle, and playing chess or tennis, "ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge" (as Charles Darwin put it).[5] They hypothesized that with a typical skill which humans may possess in greater or lesser degree,

1. Incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their own level of skill.

2. Incompetent individuals fail to recognize genuine skill in others.

3. Incompetent individuals fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy.

4. If they can be trained to substantially improve their own skill level, these individuals can recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill.
You can read more here.

At this point of the TA training, I have to wonder . . . am I overconfident about getting this job? I doubt it because I stopped thinking it was in the bag as soon as the training began. It’s harder than I thought. So, does this mean my performance is actually better than I think, or am I not competent enough in this particular skill set to recognize when I’m flailing? We’ll see.

picture: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect


  1. But doesn’t the fact you’re questioning your own level of ability indicate that you’re not being overly confident? I think that’s got to count for something.

    The Kruger-Dunning Effect is really interesting. I’ll have to read up on it more. While some people worry about if they’re too fat or if they’re pretty enough, I worry that I’m not smart enough. I feel like there is always something I could know more about (which is true). The self-doubt used to really bother me, but I’ve come to accept that questioning my own intelligence is part of being intelligent IMO. There’s a quote I once read that said something about those who know are often unsure while those who don’t are (or something along those lines). I wish I could remember.

    Anyhoo, good luck!

  2. There's a quote that's kind of similar to what you're saying by Bertrand Russell (it's on the Wikipedia page that I linked to in this post), "In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt." You don't hear the word cocksure very much any more. I'll be looking for an opportunity to take that one out of the vault.

    The fact that you question you're intelligence probably means you're brilliant.

  3. I mean your intelligence, not you're intelligence. Sorry, my inner English teacher could not let that one go.

  4. I like to think so ;). And that is exactly the quote I was talking about! Man I love quotes.