There’s an age-old bit of conventional wisdom in the corporate world called the Peter Principle. This principle states that in a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his or her level of incompetence. The logic behind the principle is that an employee is promoted so long as he performs in a competent manner. When the employee is promoted to a position at which the competent performance ceases, so do the promotions. And there the employee remains, according to Dr. Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull. Believe it or not, there’s also a Corollary to the Peter Principle, which states that, “In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out his duties,” and adds that, “Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.” I know—it’s such an incredibly optimistic and positive view of life!

A similar yet different bit of conventional wisdom is something I’ve observed in the music business from time to time: actual talent is inversely proportional to ego. Most of the genuinely talented professionals and amateurs I’ve known and worked with are quite humble about what they do, while the less talented ones are those special (in the sense of the short school bus) cases who loudly proclaim just how good they are.

A musician posting in an online recording and performance forum I occasionally frequent put it this way: “How can someone who is so bad not know how much they suck?” Well, dear readers, there is now scientific evidence that those who do indeed suck are the ones who are the least likely to know just how incompetent they are.

In a paper published in the December issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Cornell University professor Dr. David Dunning and graduate student Justin Kruger suggest a possible reason for the seeming contradiction. The incompetent are often the most blissfully self-confident because the skills required for competence are the same skills needed to recognize competence. This could go a long way in explaining why unfunny people insist on telling mass quantities of unfunny jokes, and why people with no vocal or musical talent are often seen onstage auditioning for American Idol or attempting to front a band.

The researchers studied test subjects in logic and English grammar. They found that the subjects who scored the lowest were the ones most likely to overestimate how well they had performed. Subjects who scored in the 10th and 12th percentiles believed that they had scored in the 67th and 62nd percentiles.

Even more amazing—when the low scorers were asked to evaluate the tests of those subjects who earned high scores, they were still unable to recognize the competence of others who took the same test. Some lower scoring subjects actually left the exercise with an even higher opinion of their own competence after seeing the high-scoring tests.

On the other side of the coin, the test subjects with the highest scores often underestimated their own competence. Absent any information on how well other test subjects performed, the more competent subjects simply assumed that others had done as well as they had. When they got to evaluate the tests of the lower scoring subjects, however, the higher scoring subjects were quick to reevaluate their own performances.

Dunning and Kruger’s research has given greater credibility to my original hypothesis of talent being inversely proportional to ego. Plus, it explains why incompetent people don’t know that they suck. That’s why certain people constantly show up at karaoke nights and jam sessions, musical gods and goddesses, raging superiority complexes in tow. And that’s why Simon Cowell will always have a job.

So the next time you go into a club, and the wanna-be comedian just isn’t funny… or the lead singer is living in a musical Fantasy Land… don’t judge them too harshly (save that for Simon). They truly know not what they do!

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