Can the “Unskilled and Unaware” Problem Be Fixed?

The recession has led to a lot of talk about the need to create more college graduates. The hypothetical plan often outlined in political speeches is that we improve K-12 education and make college affordable, thus inducing everybody to go. Obviously this is proving to be quite difficult, but could merely talking about the necessity of college have a significant effect?

Research by Psychologists David Dunning and Justin Krueger on something called the “unskilled and unaware problem” (also called the “Dunning-Krueger effect”) has found that the least-skilled people tend to overestimate their abilities. (The most-skilled, on the other hand, tend to underestimate their abilities.) This means that there may be certain people who pass on college because they incorrectly think they don’t need more education. If these people receive information about their relative skill level — for example, hearing from the president that their high school education isn’t good enough — could it have a significant impact on helping them alleviate their overconfidence? A new study led by Dmitry Ryvkin of Florida State touches on this question by examining the degree to which feedback can mitigate overconfidence.

In this paper, we study whether, and to what extent, the miscalibration (largely, overconfidence) of the unskilled can be reduced by feedback. We report the results of two studies, one in a natural setting and one in a more controlled setting, where participants make incentivized judgments of their absolute and relative performance in various tasks and feedback conditions. In the first study, participants improve their calibration after being exposed to naturally available information in the form of environmental feedback (i.e., feedback about the nature of the task) and calibration feedback (i.e., feedback about one’s absolute and relative performance), but it is impossible to separate the effects of the two types of feedback. In the more controlled setting of the second study, we identified a positive effect of calibration feedback alone. In both studies, it is the unskilled who improve their calibration most. Our results suggest that the unskilled may not be doomed to be especially unaware.

In the experiments the “feedback” came in the form of test or task results, not broad proclamations from well-known people. As a result, you can’t exactly apply the findings to feedback from a President’s speech. That said, I think you can make the case that a simple argument from a famous person (“You need to go to college”) could be more effective than the message sent by the result of a test on something you may not be interested in (“You’re not as good at chemistry as you thought.”)

It seems obvious that we should be telling students they should be striving to go to college, but what’s important is that sending this message will likely have a disproportionate effect on children who are the most overconfident and least skilled. The little Peter Thiel on my shoulder is screaming about the evils of telling every kid they need to go to college, but it doesn’t need to strictly be about college. As long as we find a positive ways to show kids that there’s something more they should be striving for, it might help crystalize their subpar abilities, and that could motivate them to do more.

Ryvkin, D., Krajc, M. & Ortmann, A. (2012). Are the unskilled doomed to remain unaware? Journal of Economic Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.joep.2012.06.003

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