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CNN Today

Study Finds Incompetent People Often Don't Know Their Incompetent

Aired January 19, 2000 - 2:40 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: If you remember the book "The Peter Principle," it argued the premise that people rise to their level of incompetence in the business world. In other words, a person gets promoted up the corporate ladder until they're are no longer good at the job. This allegedly explains why so many incompetent people are in positions of authority. Not only that, they are blind to their own incompetence we're told.

We get the story from Tom Bakar (ph) of affiliate KTVU in Oakland.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TOM BAKAR, KTVU REPORTER (voice-over): The primary finding of the Cornell University study is that incompetent people, you know, those klutzy, butterfingered, ham-fisted bumblers out there, often don't even know they are incompetent. And researchers say because the same psychological skills needed to be competent are necessary to recognize competence, incompetent people often fail to recognize greater competence in others.

MITCHELL MARKS, ORGANIZATIONAL PSYCHOLOGIST: Is that because they have some innate psychological trait of incompetence, like the study suggests? Or is that because they don't know how to sense and listen to the world?

BAKAR: Mitchell Marks is a San Francisco-based organizational psychologists and author of three books on human psychology inside corporations. He says he's not ready to accept the study in its entirety, because competence is a vague concept.

MARKS: It's very hard to define, especially in this day and age, where we're moving from manual labor to the Information Age.

BAKAR: The study said that, ironically, people who don't know what they're doing usually are supremely confident that they do. That's why, unlike professional comedians, humor-impaired people persist in telling unfunny jokes, and incompetent day-traders keep making bad investments even as their losses mount.

MARKS: Maybe it's wishful thinking. Maybe it's the same reason someone pulls the slot machine over and over and over again, even though they go to the store and buy a lottery ticket every week, even though they don't win.

BAKAR: Another finding: Even when confronted with their incompetence, bumblers will argue that what they did was correct. In fact, researchers found that incompetents tend to way overestimate their abilities, especially when judged on measurable skills such as logic and grammar.

By comparison, the most competent people tend to underestimate themselves.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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