Dunning Kruger’s Interview

I have several times had the (occasionally dubious) pleasure of interviewing people for jobs.   Sometimes the choices we make work out well, other times less so.  Trying to uncover the real person behind the CV is not easy; many people have good written lists of their qualifications and qualities and support those with a natural ability to talk themselves up.  I have always found it challenging in interviews; I’m not a natural salesman when it comes to yours truly, despite a good CV, written as honestly as possible for the job in question.

Self-doubt is a useful trait but it can, when allowed to run free, cause one’s true value to become obscured.  At school, despite having a measured IQ of over 170 (whatever that means!), I would spend time in exams reviewing my answers and estimating the final score (always on the low side).  Having done this I would try redoing the questions trying to find the correct answer – which I had, more often that not, already written down. My final score was in most cases higher than my estimate.  This was not true in Religious Studies where my inability to write down what I was told I believed conflicted with what I actually believed and resulted in scores that were lower than the class clown.

This type of behaviour is a standard part of everyone’s psychology.  We are in a constant, often unacknowledged, battle with our peers for recognition, promotion or even just love.  This battle has some interesting effects, one of which is called the Dunning-Kruger effect, after the researchers who published the original scientific papers.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a tendency (called a cognitive bias) for unskilled (note that this does not mean unintelligent) individuals to suffer from illusory superiority and who will rate their own ability in a given field to be above average.  They lack the knowledge required in a given domain to recognise their mistakes or lack of competence in that domain.  The corollary that caught my attention and that led me to write this post is that:

Actual competence in a given domain may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding or competence.

If that quote doesn’t reflect to a tee my own of my view worth in the competitive jungle of modern life then nothing does.  That’s not to put myself down; it’s a valuable lesson that is now learned and that I can apply to my life in the future.

I’ll finish by closing the loop on job interviews.  There were times when we conducted interviews with added tests of real competency.  One interview in particular has stuck in my mind as both the Director of HR and I had to look at each other in amazement as one candidate left the room.  We had simply asked the candidate for an honest assessment of his English language skills as they would be writing and delivering training material as part of his role in the training department.  He spoke proudly of his written skills and his competence in English grammar and spelling.  He did, however, refuse to do a spelling and grammar test that I had devised.  His reason being that it was the message that was important not the construction of good sentences or the spelling of the words.

The Dunning-Kruger effect had been called out.  We don’t always have the resources to test every claim of competence but in an increasingly competitive world we need to be aware that some people genuinely don’t know and do not have the competence to know that they’re not as good as they think they are.  What’s worse is that they’re not lying about it.

Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own ncompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77 (6), 1121-1134


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