Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The Nincompoop Quotient

Perhaps the most irritating quality of nincompoops is their unjustified but nevertheless unflagging self-confidence.

As you stare slack-jawed at the wreckage of their latest get-rich get-thin get-famous escapade, they're already hatching the next bird-brained adventure.

A few years back, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published the results of a series of studies by two research psychologists documenting what I think of as "the nincompoop phenomenon." People were given tests of logic, grammar and (I love this) humor, then asked to rate their own performance on the tests. The low performers consistently overestimated their performance, insisting they'd done well, while many of the high performers underestimated their scores.

"Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices," the researchers report, "but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it."

Hair-raising as this research is, I can't help but hope that a new personality measure will someday result from it, one far more useful to society than the Intelligence Quotient. The Nincompoop Quotient would indicate the degree to which a person habitually overestimates his or her performance. (Wouldn't you love to see the scores for members of the current administration?)

It's worth reading all the way through the study for the authors' horrifying speculation that a major cause of nincompoopism among their test subjects (college students) is environmental, stemming from lack of feedback about poor performance. It makes sense: If teachers in our culture are reluctant to give negative feedback, and all the students in a classroom get As and Bs, why wouldn't low performers think of themselves as "above average" performers?

Thanks to the always-excellent Netsurfer Digest for unearthing this study. Netsurfer Digest is subscription-only, but they offer a free trial subscription.

No comments:

Post a Comment