unskilled & unaware of it

Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. An article from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (this is the abstract):

People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it. Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although their test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd. Several analyses linked this miscalibration to deficits in metacognitive skill, or the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error. Paradoxically, improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities.

Reading psychology is a useful activity for writers of fiction (as well as for any teacher, of course). I often read case studies of particular personality disorders when I’m trying to understand a character who is getting away from me. This unskilled/unaware personality type is particularly interesting to me for two reasons.

First, when I taught at the University of Michigan, every now and then I came across a particular mindset that was especially difficult to deal with. These students (a scattering of them every year) seemed to be unable to grasp the difference between an opinion and a demonstrable, observable, fact. Statements as diverse as the earth orbits around the sun and democracy is flawed got the same reaction: that’s your opinion; my opinion is just as right. It was hard work bringing them to the point where they understood that in the first case, it was possible to prove or disprove the statement while in the second, it was only possible to form arguments based on subjective evaluation and critical analysis.

In terms of fiction, the unskilled/unaware personality is damn hard to write, simply because it’s almost impossible to make such a character likeable or even sympathetic. An unskilled character — even a severely limited character — can be complex and interesting in a variety of ways, but as soon as you add in a lack of self awareness the tendency is to slide over the line into unlikable or ridiculous. Or both.

Mostly you run across this type in comedy — Ted in the old Mary Tyler Moore Show, for example, or some of the contestants on American Idol (and yes, I do watch it; it’s priceless in many ways). I can’t think of any unskilled/unaware characters outside of comedy, either in print or on film.