Why do people go on American Idol when they clearly can’t sing?

Dr. Matthew Winslow, EKU professor of psychology

It seems to me that people watch American Idol (currently in its 12th season!) for two reasons: to watch and root for the talented singers in the last phase of each season, and to laugh at the many contestants in the early phase that clearly have much less talent although no less confidence. How can we explain why there are so many people confident enough in their singing to wait in long lines and appear on national television when they so clearly have no chance of winning or even “Going to Hollywood!”?

One answer is certainly the lure of fame, even if it is so fleeting and tainted by ridicule. After all, William Hung (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Hung) garnered significant fame not despite his terrible singing, but because of it. However, the brief chatting between contestants and judges that takes place before or after the actual singing suggests that many long-shot contestants sincerely believe the audition is just the first step towards their inevitable triumph. What’s up with those people?

The answer might come from research about people’s perceptions of their own abilities (Dunning-Kruger effect and bias). Social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger conducted research that demonstrated that novices often overestimate their ability because they do not know just how much they do not yet know. The idea is captured nicely in the title of their original article, "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments". In order to know you are a bad singer you must know what good singing is, and have a clear idea of how bad your own singing is. As can be seen on American Idol, the Dunning-Kruger effect (as it is now called) can lead to failure and embarrassment.

So how can you avoid it? A combination of humility and openness to critical feedback can help. A tall order.

Published on October 04, 2018