Monday, 25 August 2008

You Have To Be Good To Know That You’re Bad

Have you ever watched a talent show audition and wondered how so many dreadful performers could ever consider themselves good enough to win?

They overestimate their talent but remain free from embarrassment by being unable to recognise just how badly they’ve done. This combination of overestimation and selective blindness is a double burden which stops them from progressing (and has the side effect of providing us with hours of fun TV).

In order to realise how bad they are, they first have to understand what being good means: they have to learn how to perform better. It’s a paradox that happens in writing too.

You can read more about it Justin Kruger's and David Dunning's paper, Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments, which appeared in 1999 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology


Anonymous said...

What a fascinating paper! It certainly supports the empirical evidence of slushpiles: that the worst writers are the ones who least know it.

It also explains the self-deprecatingness of some (by no means all) terrific writers. It can be false modesty, because at least in England there's a huge social taboo about saying, 'Yes, I'm a terrific writer'. But it can also be because good writers have no idea (unless they pay the bills by reading slush or teaching) just how bad 'bad' can get.

HelenMWalters said...

That is fascinating research - and you only have to watch an episode of 'The X Factor','American Idol' etc to know that it's true!

Jane Smith said...

I've got lots of this sort of thing squirrelled away: I'm very interested in the process of writing, and how different factors come into play, and wrote about this for my MA.

A particular favourite of mine is the link between writing and depression, which I've also blogged about: click on the "diversions" label and you should find those posts.

DOT said...

Emma's comments reflect my thoughts. I believe that talented individuals suffer the same sort of blindness to their ability, though not out of myopia, but because they can see how short they fall of their ideal and, as a result, belittle their achievement.

Sally Zigmond said...

How satisfying to find one's own vague thoughts set out so clearly and scientifically.

Unfortunately, whereas untalented and unaware performers make for highly entertaining (if toe-curling) television, examples of novels, stories and poems written by the untalented and the unaware makes one want to bang one's head against something very hard!

I know from when I used to read short story submissions that if I pointed out problems or errors, the good writers thanked me for pointing them in the right direction but the bad writers told me I hadn't a clue what I was talking about and was biased against them!

Some things never change.

Anonymous said...

My experience of writers who are or will be good is that they're terribly aware of their shortcomings, but do also have a core of confidence that, overall, they are or will be good. Having what they get wrong pointed out doesn't rock their faith in themselves the way it does the really incompetent - which is why the incompetent fight back by arguing or refusing to hear what people are telling you: more than there is with a maths teacher who's telling you 2 + 2 doesn't = 5.

Jane, your MA sounds fascinating. I went to a conference of CW PhDs the other day, and I was astonished how many of them weren't interested in process as a subject of discussion, even if they felt private about their own, as many do.

And then there were the ones who didn't see that process is central to CW at all: that saw their writing as a demonstration of theoretical ideas, rather than something of itself, to be examined after the act. I had a stand-up argument with one bloke, who couldn't see why a PhD examiner shouldn't ask for changes in the creative work if they didn't fit the theoretical discussion...

Jane Smith said...

Emma, I took my MA at Sheffield Hallam, where the emphasis was on the creative side, with very little theoretical or critical work: and the creative parts were all taught by real, published, working writers rather than by academics, which I felt was critical to the process. I'm very interested in taking a PhD, but am struggling to find funding for one. It looks like I might have to veer towards working on the media/communications side rather than on the CW side. But we'll see.

Meanwhile, I'm both saddened and amused by the lack of credibility that CW has with many academics. I can understand, almost: writing is seen as something that anyone can do, especially by those who can't or don't do it! I think of writing as being incredibly difficult, particularly novel writing: the ability to knit together the vast web of nuance and information that is involved in a novel is a complex and massive task; to do so with any degree of subtlety (sp?) and rigour is impossible, on the face of it. And yet some people manage it. More than once. Amazing.

Anonymous said...

I think I'm bad so I must be good.