The Competency Fallacy: Everyone Wings It All the Time

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78 Responses

  1. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    I think that this question assumes that “just winging it” and “competency” are mutually exclusive in a way that they aren’t.

    It’s like the opening case from Blink, about the greek statue the Getty had, where it was passing the scientific tests but the people who had worked with similar statues all their careers still knew off the cuff that it was a forgery.

    Doctors, lawyers, scientists, and other skilled professions each have a range of competence within their ranks. Even the most competent and most skilled wing it a lot. But — and this is important — their winging it isn’t the same as your winging it. Being able to wing it and have it work far more often than not is part of what competence is.Report

  2. Avatar Kim says:

    To be able to wing it, one must plan for all options ahead of time. At least plan a few moves into the future. Otherwise, you’ll just freeze up.

    On TV? It’s a bit of the survival of the fittest, just like in real life. Either you chose a job where you need to wing it, frequently — in which case you don’t survive if you’re not good, or you choose to be lazy.Report

  3. Avatar zic says:

    I frequently meet classical musicians at jazz gigs. Absolute monster musicians, some of the finest in the world. But they’ll often look and listen in wonder, and say, “I wish I could do that,” of the improvisers on the stage, winging it. They recognize that that the skills required to perform and compose in the moment — the ability to wing it — requires years of study and practice; it’s not casual or occasional.

    So I very much agree with @tod-kelly comment above.

    Just because someone wings it, does not mean that they’re producing less valuable work; and often indicates that they’re at the top of their form.Report

  4. I support the use of the term “competency porn”.Report

  5. Avatar greginak says:

    “CIS” shows…..the typo slayeth even the competent.

    What to many people get from shows, books, movies, etc is that everything has a purpose in a story. They don’t see people getting really lucky or making a mistake that just works out or succeeding despite what they do. So when they look at real life and history they assume all good moves lead to good things or that everything must have been planned.Report

    • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to greginak says:

      I’m reading a very silly book in the Thursday Next series at the moment, and there’s a section where the protagonist prepares to enter the Real World from Book World – one of the adjustments she has to make is to the absence of a coherent narrative – for instance most of the conversations one has in the Real World don’t actually produce any useful insight or motivate anyone’s next action in a purposeful way.Report

  6. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    This might explain why central planning never worked.Report

    • Avatar Philip H in reply to LeeEsq says:

      not so much. The problem with central planning wasn’t that it assumed perfect competence or that it couldn’t wing it. The problem was that it assumed winging it was a universal geographic and situational constant. And it was executed as another economic corruption. But I digress.Report

  7. Avatar James Hanley says:

    Shogun is a great book, but competency-porn is a perfect label for it. When I reached the end, I was irritated by the conclusion that the one character (the winning samurai, not the western hero) had actually had everything well in hand, that everything worked out according to his plan, even when events seemed to be going against him. The whole series of events was too sprawling and distributed for that to have been remotely possible.

    And what’s sad in all this competency porn is that it’s a bit boring and predictable really (hence easy to write, which is surely why we get so much of it). More interesting by far is watching characters scrambling to adjust when plans go awry, when the unexpected happens, when the other side actually makes a better strategic choice and the hero needs to adjust or lose.Report

  8. Avatar Roger says:

    “What would happen if we basically all admitted the headline and that we are all essentially winging it and just trying to make sense of the random chaos that is life?”

    I suspect it would lead to different norms, values and institutions. Better ones, IMO. More emphasis on experimentation.Report

    • Avatar Roger in reply to Roger says:

      An example that comes to mind is marketing. When I transferred into marketing late in my career I was shocked at how marketers have no frickin clue what sells. The best approaches are to try lots of things, measure, reform, re measure… Etc etc etc.

      When talking to other departments they need to feign expertise and confidence. But the real expertise is learning to know that they don’t know much.Report

  9. Avatar Troublesome Frog says:

    I think that’s about right. One thing I learned during mergers with a few of our competitors that became a mantra of mine is, “Everybody is just as dysfunctional as you are.” When you’re at war with your big competitor and it feels like you’re hanging by a shoelace, all of your products are slapped together with duct tape, and you’re just one bad field test from losing the market, it’s really easy to see the competition as doing everything right, having good professional procedures, and being largely bug free.

    Then the mergers happen and we consolidate engineering teams and product lines. In every case, the company we thought was inches away from whuppin’ us had at least as many hidden issues, at least as a many holes in their procedures and testing, and at least as many engineers who were losing sleep waiting for something to fall apart. Every time you feel like you’re uniquely incompetent and dysfunctional, take heart. Everybody else is just like you.Report

    • Avatar Troublesome Frog in reply to Troublesome Frog says:

      Every time you feel like you’re uniquely incompetent and dysfunctional, take heart. Everybody else is just like you.

      Except Samsung. Frickin’ Samsung. Those guys are higher forms of life.

      But seriously, probably Samsung too.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Troublesome Frog says:

        Though even they weren’t quite clever enough to buy out the South Korean government wholesale and get away with it.Report

      • Avatar wardsmith in reply to Troublesome Frog says:

        @kolohe Samsung should have paid retail for the government like everyone elseReport

      • Avatar Morat20 in reply to Troublesome Frog says:

        Heck no. Their TV’s are great, but have you ever tried one of their appliances?

        My mother-in-law has a fridge of their’s that’s rusting. Why? The ice-maker dumps tiny shards of ice down into the innards of the steel door every time it’s used, where it melts and starts rusting it.

        Because their ice maker setup was just designed by an idiot. It’s not “bad seals” or “bad gaskets” or some other mechanical defect. It’s an artifact of the actual design.

        A friend of mine with one of their top-end washer/dryers is having similar problems (of the “this was designed badly”) type.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Troublesome Frog says:

        As long as we are complaining about fridges, stay away from Frigidaire. What a piece of crap mine is.Report

      • Avatar Troublesome Frog in reply to Troublesome Frog says:

        I was thinking more on the electronics side. We were worried about Samsung getting into our business a while back (a handheld electronic device) and every similar Samsung product that might be adapted to enter our market was really well designed and manufactured when we dissected it. It was deeply disconcerting.Report

  10. Avatar Patrick says:

    Interestingly, I just read about thirty years’ worth of cognitive psychology on just this topic. Heuristics and biases, naturalistic decision-making, and some of the newer dualistic model stuff.

    In a nutshell, no, we’re not always winging it. In fact, there’s plenty of research to suggest that real predictive expertise exists, but it is task-dependent and problem-domain dependent. A lot of what we consider to be “expert” activity falls out of the task-dependent and problem-domain dependent arena and you wind up with descriptive expertise that lacks predictive capabilities. Sometimes you have problem domains that are large (medicine) that still lack task-dependency characteristics in some parts of the subdomain.

    Thus, on the one hand, you can have an economist who studies monetary policy for 40 years and still can’t tell you when a worldwide recession is going to hit, because macroeconomics is a problem domain that doesn’t have much predictability (the system is too complex)… and on the other, you can have an emergency room doctor who consistently outperforms everybody else in the ward in correctly identifying appropriate treatments during a triage event.

    And you can then have that same doctor fail spectacularly at trying to play House.

    This I probably should make into an upcoming Good Science post…Report

  11. Avatar Kazzy says:

    I asked my friend who worked on the hill about how realistic “House of Cards” was.


    I think @tod-kelly nails it in his first comment. I do think we’d be better served to have fairer expectations of other people (and I say this as someone whose major flaw is holding too high expectations for everyone). At the same time, I think there are areas where our expectations are too low. It often seems that the situations where we should have high expectations we have low ones and the ones where we have low expectations we have high ones.Report

  12. Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

    The proper term isn’t “winging it” but “muddling through”.Report

    • A bit less pithily, the term “winging it” implies a certain quick thinking flexibility that doesn’t adequately reflect any situation without clarity in the real world, whereas muddling through has a nice….I dunno, stumbling aspect that does.Report

  13. Avatar James K says:

    I think you have a good point Saul, and I think it speaks to the difficulty the media have portraying expertise (as Vikram has noted before this has an effect on how female characters are portrayed).

    I this is because of precisely how inexplicable expertise looks to someone who lacks it. A TV shows’ writers don’t understand how an expert at X figures out a problem in their domain, so they portray expert characters as making wild leaps of logic, and then make them look smart by having the plot back them up.

    Basically it’s like the reverse of Heterodyne’s Law – any sufficiently under-analysed science is indistinguishable from magic.Report

    • Avatar Gabriel Conroy in reply to James K says:

      That (as well as Saul’s) is a good point. I’d add that sometimes entertainment is more entertaining if expertise, etc., is simplified.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to James K says:

      Torchwood had some decent stuff about how to be competent:
      1) Get the experts on the line
      2) learn how to make do, and scavenge what you need.
      3) hope to hell you actually have enough stuff to make “magic” happenReport

  14. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    “Competency porn” is a perfect description of the works of Ayn Rand. And much of Heinlein.Report

    • Also NUMB3RS. Especially the character played by Navi Rawat, who just sort of casually writes insane numerical algorithms over the course of an afternoon. Undoubtedly by typing C code directly into the compiler.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Machine language, surely.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire in reply to Michael Cain says:

        I knew a guy like that. He had this enormous CAD system he’d written entirely in x86 assembler, for speed. But it was HUGE. (And very fast.)

        Guy was definitely a mad genius.Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Geekiest programmers I ever knew were these dudes who maintained an essential auditing program when I worked for a state welfare dept.; the original code was gone. And they paid these dudes to maintain it because (of course) nobody knew what it did, but it was essential.

        One of the best things I ever did was quit programming. It was easy. And stressful. I’m much happier writing and knitting, though neither pays nearly as well. But it was worth it, nonetheless.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Michael Cain says:

        He was a Real Programmer. (Though a real Real Programmer would have created a high-speed IBM 360 emulator, so he could write in that.)Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Michael Cain says:

        @mike-schilling Yes he was.

        I was fresh out of an 18-week COBOL course; I’d previously been a first-person interpreter at a living museum, and could not do that work because I’d broken my jaw a few years earlier; I could not talk all day for a living. So I got retrained through a CETA grant.

        I don’t even remember his name, early 1980’s. But he taught me something really important: you don’t need to remember how to do something, you need to remember where to look it up. That always struck me as the essence of the digital age; we are all librarians now.Report

      • Machine language, surely.

        I was always fond of writing something as a single line of APL that couldn’t be evaluated because by the time you reached the middle, the data structure it represented ran to terabytes. Even if you had access to an interpreter that did a fairly decent job on lazy evaluation.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Geekiest programmer I ever knew wrote self-modifying code [there’s a few characters in Sluggy Freelance based partially off him].Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Real Programmers get “delivered” to their worksite in a black helicopter. And blindfolded. [and that’s what you get for being a “trusted contractor”… I suppose they knock you unconscious otherwise.]Report

  15. How much do you think fictional media makes us think politicians, scientists, lawyers, doctors, and other professionals are competent than they really are?

    Well, to my knowledge, there aren’t a lot of shows that feature the suave, debonaire, and handsome historian who goes about solving problems. But if there were, they’d probably be along the lines of the old t.v. show “Voyagers” (remember that? from the 80s?), or perhaps the plot would have the historian settle bar fights about whether the CSA would have won the war if Chamberlain had been a bit slower in defending Little Round Top.Report

  16. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    I think that there are plenty of shows that defeat the competency porn myth in my own profession. Law & Order does a very good job of cops and lawyers trying hard and mostly in good faith, sometimes coming up short or having to adapt to clever counter-moves by adversaries. The guys on Boston Legal were clearly making it all up as they went along and no doubt incapable of master planning ordering a pizza. That made it fun. This is possible because writers were recruited who swam in those seas themselves.

    Less so with professions that involve actual science. My wife watches ‘Bones” sometimes, and its attempts to show forensic pathology as a falliable human endeavor are dripping with competency porn, particularly when the protagonist gets involved. (And the artificially quirky personalities of the scientists don’t help; about all that does help is how stunningly attractive Emily Deschanel is.)

    One result of this that we see in the courtroom is called the CSI Effect: jurors demand more of science than it can reasonably deliver.Report

    • Avatar gingergene in reply to Burt Likko says:

      I’m pretty sure I was once booted from a jury because I have a job as an engineer. The prosecutor told me, “You’re probably used to having questions with black and white answers and not a lot of grey, right?” and evidently didn’t believe me when I said, “Not usually; there’s a lot open to intepretation in what I do.”

      Which is too bad; I’ve always wanted to serve on a jury, but never have. (I have a fantasy of being Henry Fonda in Twelve Angry Men. Justice Porn, I guess.)

      (Also, I do know that if I ever do serve on a jury, most likely it will be for a case like the one I was booted from- two guys who are probably not very nice guys, both with criminal histories, get into a fight and one is accused of assaulting the other. He said/ He said; sort it out, and good luck on figuring out the “truth”.)Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to gingergene says:

        that just means that the guy who struck you thought he wanted to pull on yer heartstrings, and that the other guy had evidence that he was struck first.

        I did serve on a civil jury, and we spent most of the court time discussing $2,000 (we wound up awarding over $100K in damages alone, so…)Report

  17. Avatar Anne says:

    I’ll just leave this here

  18. Avatar Jim Heffman says:

    Not only is it the competency porn, but there’s also the fact that if they actually portrayed reality we’d be simultaneously bored and incredulous. No fiction writer would make up a situation where Congress passed a law that nearly put Goodwill out of business by accident, even though that actually happened. No fiction writer would make up a situation where taking a Federal grant would actually cost money, even though that happens all the time.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Jim Heffman says:

      “Congress passed a law that nearly put Goodwill out of business by accident, even though that actually happened”

      • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Kim says:

        @jaybird I just read that twice; I must be missing it. How did the CPSIA almost put Goodwill out of business?

        I am actually curious; I have not heard this.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Kim says:

        This actually was huge on NPR at the time of its passage.

        From the wikipedia: “The problem is not the lead or phthalate content, as they imply, but the fact that the products must be tested to make sure they comply.”

        What this means is that the old man who carves ducks to be pulled with a string can’t sell his ducks because he hasn’t tested his ducks for phthalates. The ducks are made of wood. The string is made of string. There ain’t no phthalates to be found but this has not been *PROVEN* through testing. Even though it’s wood and string.

        The article also mentions this:

        In early 2009, local media reported that children’s clothes, books, toys, and other items were being removed from shelves at local stores – and in some of these cases even to the point of causing the entire store to close – in Wichita, Kansas,[22] Ionia, Michigan,[23] Conway, Arkansas,[24] Goldsboro, North Carolina,[25] Lincoln, Nebraska,[26] New York City, New York (NYC),[27] Rochester, New York,[28] Marshall, Minnesota,[29] Kailua, Hawaii,[30] New Port Richey, Florida,[31] and Tucson, Arizona.[32]

        One of those citations takes you here:,80479

        (2nd paragraph from the article)
        The new law was passed in August after several toys were recalled because they contained lead. The law only affects products that are made for children 12 years old or younger. Store owners could face up to a 100 thousand dollar fine for every violation. That’s why Goodwill stores are now busy pulling children’s toys and clothes off the shelves. Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Kim says:

        Oh, I assumed the CPSIA issue was something like that, but how would that almost put them out of business? Money from their used goods stores is actually a tiny fraction of their revenue. Most of it comes from grants, fed subsidies, donations and membership subscriptions.

        The stores are actually a way to spend money (it employes vulnerable populations), not make money.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Kim says:

        All that to say: the companies like Hasbro loved this law because they have the infrastructure that can absorb testing everything. The old man who carves ducks out of wood? He doesn’t.

        So “Ants In The Pants” can get tested and, having been tested, can be legally sold. The ducks cannot be legally sold.

        To bring us around to Goodwill, let’s say that you donate a wood duck that you bought from an old man. “The kids haven’t played with this since forever. I’m getting rid of it. I’ll donate it! TO GOODWILL!!!!!”

        Well, Goodwill knows that if they sell it, they could potentially be fined $100,000. So they’ll just burn the duck.

        Saying that the law could have forced Goodwill out of business may be a hair of an overstatement, but it’s well within acceptable boundaries for overstatement in the comments here, I reckon.Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Kim says:

        That’s certainly true enough.Report

      • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Kim says:

        My own piece about CPSIA (still my only piece of compensated real, actual journalism) is lost in the ether, buried many years ago with Culture11. But here is a pretty good piece Walter Olson wrote at the time that discusses the effect of CPSIA on the second hand market and thrift stores:

      • Avatar Jim Heffman in reply to Kim says:

        “Money from their used goods stores is actually a tiny fraction of their revenue.”

        Right, because when you say “Goodwill” to people, they think about grants and subsidies and member subscription fees, and they hardly *ever* think about stores that sell used goods :rolleyes:Report