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Why Horrible Singers Audition for American Idol

Updated: Oct 29, 2021

This may not always be the reason, but it explains a lot.

May, 2017

Turns out American Idol is coming back to TV this year. Also, I’m music-directing a show and saw a lot of auditions. Both of these remind me of a discussion I'm pretty sure you’ve had. You know... the one about singers who are terrible and don’t seem to know it.

Historically, I’ve taken a pass on that subject. It just seems too mean. I don’t like to laugh at anybody who’s trying, because at least they’re trying. But it does make you wonder, doesn’t it? How can they watch or listen to themselves and be unaware of how bad they sound? How is that possible!?

One of my science podcasts provided me with an answer. I went poking around cyberspace and found a couple of articles from reliable sources that helped me understand a bit better. I'm sure this is not the only answer, but it definitely holds water. It's called The Dunning-Kruger Effect.*


"...not only do they fail to recognize their incompetence,

they’re also likely to feel confident

that they actually are competent."


The name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but definitely a thing as of 1999. Then-Cornell psychologist David Dunning and Justin Kruger administered tests on humor, grammar, and logic, asking participants to rate themselves on their performance before receiving the test results. It turned out that the worst performers consistently ranked themselves above the 2/3 mark, and often in the top 15% of performers.

An article in Forbes succinctly defines it as “a cognitive bias whereby people who are incompetent at something are unable to recognize their own incompetence. And not only do they fail to recognize their incompetence, they’re also likely to feel confident that they actually are competent”.

Check out the graph. Peaking, on the far left, are people who have virtually no experience and think they know it all. Then, as people gain more experience they become aware of their own ignorance and lack of skill. People who are true experts recognize their talent, but still lack the supreme confidence of the person who knows nothing.

Author William Poundstone writes that The Dunning-Kruger Effect is “not a pathological condition. It is the human condition”. In other words, you have it, but because of the nature of the effect, you’re ignorant. Therefore you don’t know you have it.

Think back. You can probably remember really enjoying something and knowing you were good at it. Singing, for example. People may have complimented you on your singing, back then, which encouraged you to think you were great. Because you thought you were great, you may have decided to take lessons. Or maybe you joined a choir, entered a contest, or auditioned for something. At that point, or sometime after that, you probably began to get a clue. You began to realize how much better you could be.

Then you either gave up, because you realized that getting better would be a lot of work, or you decided to get better.

If you aren't getting cast as often as you'd like, or getting all the gigs you want, you may still be somewhere over on the left side of the graph. It's tempting to stay there, because:

A) it's familiar and thus comfortable

B) getting better takes humility, time, patience, money, dedication, and persistence

C) there ain't no guarantees

I love to think that, for some of the people that are on the receiving end of those cutting comments from the judges, this experience will be The Thing that they need to spur them into action. For them to take the Red Pill and do what it takes to get better.

I want to think that. Because once you're on the right side of that graph, nobody can take that away from you.


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