Oh To Be Blissfully Unaware Of Our Own Incompetence

Oh To Be Blissfully Unaware Of Our Own Incompetence

I question my own ability several times a day, every day.

I look at others in my field of professional expertise who seem to have supreme confidence and I worry that I may actually be grossly under-qualified to be putting myself out there in the same company.

I worry because it’s scientifically proven that most incompetent people don’t know they are incompetent.

It’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect after two psychology researchers from Cornell University who conducted a series of experiments after noting many references in other studies to people’s ignorance of their own performance. David Dunning and Justin Kruger found that for a given skill, the majority of incompetent people will:

  1. Fail to recognise their own lack of skill
  2. Fail to recognise genuine skill in others
  3. Fail to recognise the extent of their own ineptitude

The researchers noted the irony of the situation is that in order to recognise those things, the person would need to possess the very skill they lack!

The other significant finding they made was the reverse applied to people who did have the skill in question…

Actual competence tends to weaken self-confidence and people with true skill generally under-estimate their own ability.

This is not a new concept though. Noted philosophers and scientists have been talking about it for centuries.

Confucius said “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance”.

Charles Darwin said “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”.

Bertrand Russell eloquently put it like this: “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision”.

They Probably Won’t Try To Improve Either

Dunning and Kruger found that incompetent people can recognise their own previous lack of skill if they are exposed to training for that skill. The problem is that they are unlikely to seek out such training.

Why would they if they don’t know?

Public speaking is a classic example. People who seek help with public speaking typically do so because they lack confidence. But the bigger problem (in the business world at least) is confident speakers who really could use some help because they are confusing, offending, and boring their audiences.

What Do We Do Then?

A couple of important points to keep in mind:

  1. Not all confident people are incompetent
  2. Not all people who feel self-doubt are highly skilled

I think our best bet is simply to have enough self-awareness to look objectively at our own performance on a regular basis and couple that with the desire to really master whatever is we are trying to do. Even better, get a mentor or coach, or find someone we trust completely to provide us with informed objective feedback and guidance.

Doing those things will always put us a step ahead of those who never ask any questions of themselves and sure enough, the genuine ‘earned’ confidence that only comes from actually being good at what you do, will follow.

(Originally published Nov 2013. Updated April 2016).

David Wise

David Wise

Owner, Wise Words Communications


The ‘93% of Communication is Non-Verbal’ Myth

The ‘93% of Communication is Non-Verbal’ Myth

A common statistic that is quoted by some trainers, consultants, and even the occasional uni professor, is that “93% of communication is non-verbal.”

The breakdown of communication elements they quote normally goes like this:

55% visual – facial expressions, gestures, movements etc.

38% auditory – tone, pitch, volume of voice

7% language – the actual words

Let’s think about this logically for a moment…

Language is an essential foundation of our society. Words are everywhere because they are essential to communication – much more than just 7%. Even primitive societies developed languages because grunts and hand signals were simply not sufficient.

So where does this 93% idea come from?

These figures are actually a misquote of some research performed in the 1960’s. A very smart man called Dr Albert Mehrabian was interested in finding out how communication was affected by conflicting gestures, expressions and tone so he designed a couple of experiments involving pictures of people with different facial expressions and audio using varying tones of voice and pitch.

The Real Conclusion

Dr Mehrabian’s conclusion was that when it came to the communication of emotion 7% was derived from the language, 38% from tone, and 55% from visuals.

So 93% of our understanding of other people’s emotions comes from their body language and voice. Unfortunately, that has become over-generalised over the years with people applying it to all communication.

Albert Mehrabian himself is on record as saying:

“I am obviously uncomfortable about misquotes of my work. From the very beginning I have tried to give people the correct limitations of my findings.”


“Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.”

Words Are Important

The reality is for the actual information and details we need to be told using words.

When we ask someone “What are you so happy about?” or “What’s wrong with you?” what we are really saying is, “I can easily tell your emotions but to get the information I need you will have to tell me using words”.

So the next time someone tells you that 93% of communication is non-verbal, take it with a grain of salt and remember the context of the original experiment.

In the meantime, before you start thinking about how you look and sound, make sure you have a well-structured message that can be followed by your audience. Good delivery helps but it won’t save poor content.

The words do matter.

David Wise

David Wise

Owner, Wise Words Communications