02 July 2010

The Delusion of Competence

Natural resources minister Kathy Dunderdale, in full rhetorical flight during Question Period in the legislature, May 26, 2010:

Mr. Speaker, when the members opposite sat over here they certainly had no expertise in developing deals, negotiating contracts, as we saw on a number of occasions in the fourteen years of their mandate. Voisey’s which we had to renegotiate, I tell the Opposition Leader, Mr. Speaker.

No shortage of confidence in her own abilities and that of colleagues, would you dare say? Not much, at all especially in her own estimation.  In fact, Dunderdale seems supremely confident in her assessment that her crowd will do better than the crowd that went before.

Friends and supporters of the current administration would likely all nod in agreement and might even offer that Dunderdale’s confidence in their abilities is well justified. Confidence, after all, is something people usually assume comes with competence.

But it isn’t a safe assumption.

Research at Cornell in 1999 showed that the tendency to braggadocio is associated with people who are actually less competent than others. The confidence people often see in others, especially when expressed as a self-appraisal is pretty much a product of self-delusion. 

Remember the old saying “buy him for what he’s worth and sell him for what he thinks he’s worth?  That’s pretty much exactly the phenomenon researchers found.

Very often, people think they are much better at tasks than they actually are.  Now in an of itself, that hardly seems like a penetrating insight into anything except the obvious.  Well, that might be true except that you actually have to apply these little observations. Bear in mind that people who pump themselves up are likely actually not very good at whatever they are bragging about. 

Think about the delusion of competence when someone engages in excessive self-congratulation, in public oratorical onanism as your humble e-scribbler used to call it.

Or brags and blusters as Dunderdale did at the beginning of the whole Lott/Motion Invest affair and then performs far short of her self-appraisal when all is said and done.