Thursday, April 27, 2006

Scientific Proof of the American Idol Effect

I had earlier dubbed the shocking inability of American Idol contestants to objectively judge their own singing ability as the American Idol Effect. I did not realize that this is a known and well studied phenomenon. Self-efficacy is the belief that one has the capabilities to execute the courses of actions required to manage prospective situations. Remember the "Little Engine That Could" - "I think I can, I think I can." People (or trains) with high self-efficacy believe they can get the job done and tend to spend more effort on getting to the goal. This isn't to say that they actually have the ability, they just believe they do. In our little engine example, the train was successful and all was well.

American Idol auditions are not so clear cut. Currently the show is in the boring finals where all that is left is to vote people off stage. But think back to the fun part of the show and recall how bad some of the contestants were at their auditions. How can they be so bad at judging themselves? they really think they can sing. Cognitive Psychology comes to our rescue with an explanation in the form of Dunning-Kruger Syndrome, the phenomenon whereby people who have little knowledge systematically think that they know more than others who have much more knowledge. In a phrase, clueless people think they are smart. For example, the blog, Damn Interesting, titles their discussion of the effect "Unskilled and Unaware of It".

The less you know about a topic, the less you are able to judge your own ability in the topic. Perhaps a simple graph will explain. In their paper (caution .pdf), Dunning and Kruger produced a plot of perceived grammar ability (red squares) and test scores (orange triangles) vs. the actual test scores (green circles) achieved in their study.

The top quartile of subjects are good at grammar and humbly underestimate their ability (found at the upper right of the chart). More surprising is the bottom quartile of subjects (on the bottom left side of the chart). Subjects that are the worst at grammar still think they are above average, perhaps because they are the least able to judge. In example after example the authors show this institutionalized American Idol effect. Amusingly everyone thinks they are slightly above average, OK for the smart ones, wrong for the unskilled ones.

The study can serve as a lesson for us. Be cautious in your self-judgement. You may judge yourself good at something because you are, or because you're not qualified to judge. Use rigorous, objective measurement techniques where possible. I still prefer the designation, the American Idol Effect, since only you and I, and a few wikipedia readers now know what Dunning-Kruger Syndrome is.

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DelorumRex said...

You should vote in out Kat McPhee Fat or PHAT poll! with a highlights of the Katherine McPhee yellow dress night vid too!

Anonymous said...

Or, more succinctly, tone deaf people can't hear how out of tune they sing.