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Why you’re better at digital marketing than you think

23 Aug 2016

A few years ago, a survey came out revealing more than half of marketers felt they weren’t very “proficient” in digital techniques. Evidence abounds that the forces of disruption have left many groups — from small business marketers to college students(some of whom are future marketers) — feeling overwhelmed because their own sorry skills aren’t as good as others’.

It’s a sobering picture crying for empathy. Unless, of course, these people are wrong. Are they really as bad as they think? Are others better? We humans are constantly comparing and despairing, but how good are we at making these ad hoc comparative self-assessments anyway?

The short answer: not very. We people have a psychological quirk that makes us aggressively bad at self-assessment, particularly at the extremes.

It turns out this quirk has a pedigree, a name, and an underground following among election watchers. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, named for a paper published by then-Cornell University psychology professors David Dunning and Justin Kruger. The paper’s title gives a taste of its pleasures:

“Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.”

It’s a simultaneously fun and horrifying reading. The profs performed four tests on undergrads, perennial guinea pigs for published psych. research. Their question was: How good are people at accurately assessing their own skills? The skills they tested were grammar, logic and (somewhat eccentrically) humour. Their method compared the subject’s self-assessment with a test of their actual skill level.

And the results were not pretty. They found that “participants scoring in the bottom quartile … grossly overestimated their test performance and ability.” In fact, they were not even close, rating themselves an average 62 when they deserved a 12 on a 100-point scale. (Note that they didn’t rate themselves geniuses, just well above average.)

So the Dunning-Kruger Effect is “a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate.” Ouch. Why? They have “a metacognitive inability to recognise their [own] ineptitude.” In other words, incompetents have a double trouble: “not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realise it.”

Passionate Intensity

Wistfully, I thought of a Yeats poem:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.

What are we to make of this? Most of the very interesting comments on this Effect stop at the level of scrutinising incompetents, but the professors themselves did not. Their conclusion was simply that the skill to do something and the skill to assess that skill are two different things. It works both ways: being good at something doesn’t mean you’re good at evaluating the skill.

The study should provide solace to the self-critical and a splash of water to the self-impressed. I think it also has more existential implications. Perhaps the best way to understand the Dunning-Kruger Effect is to remember that we all see the world through our eyes: everything we perceive is processed through our self-perception.

Optimistic people live in an optimistic world. And vice versa.

As a marketer, if you believe you’re falling behind and others are more adept at programmatic advertising or multitouch attribution or using the SnapChat API, you may be giving them credit for your own knowledge. As Dunning and Kruger themselves conclude, the only way to really know where you stand is to score yourself against a set of objective criteria and benchmark the results.

This week’s theme here at Gartner for Marketing Leaders HQ is the Maturity Model. This is a set of objective self-evaluations you can take to estimate where your team falls on five-point scale, from nascent to ninja, across a range of digital marketing skills. To compare your team to someone else’s, you can look at our benchmarks or ask them to do the same evaluation.

In the meantime, marketers (and college students), take heart: your sorry self-assessment may itself be proof you’re better than you think.

Article by Martin Kihn, Gartner research VP.

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