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The Dunning-Kruger Effect

The basic idea is this: the dumber you are, and the less you actually know about any given subject, the more certain your belief that you are actually an expert who is quite smart. Somehow your lack of understanding actually increases your conviction that you are right in any given situation, and that you are indeed a high performer. Conversely, the smarter you are, the less certain you become that you are right, and the more aware you become of what you don’t know. Dumb people overestimate themselves; smart people tend to overestimate everyone else.

I had heard of this concept before, but I just listened to an fascinating NPR podcast where Seth Cole interviewed psychologist David Dunning, one of the researchers for whom the effect is named. You can read a transcript here (scroll down to Act Two: Ignorance for Dummies). My first thought was “well that certainly explains a lot.” Here are a few excerpts from Seth Cole:

  • “In short, there seemed to be a direct correlation between incompetence and an overweening sense of self-confidence.”
  • He further states “It’s not that you’re ignorant and also happen to be overconfident. You’re ignorant, and it makes you overconfident. On the other hand, students who scored well, who really were in the higher percentiles, they tended to guess that they scored a little worse than they actually did… They figured most of the kids around them knew as much as they did. They simply misjudged other people, thinking, well, they’re probably as smart as I am.” (Cole, 2017)

So what are we to make of this phenomenon? Well, before anyone gets too smug here, let’s remember that all humans have a tendency to overestimate their abilities. So there’s that. I’ve always inherently felt that the more absolute someone was in their beliefs, the more they saw the world in black and white terms – the more likely they were to be at best unimaginative and at worst not that bright. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become less certain of my ability to judge these things. The world and everything in it is too nuanced and complex to make any overarching conclusions and sweeping generalizations.

But it would certainly serve all of us well to always question our abilities and consistently try to improve – both in our jobs, in our art, and in our humanity. We have to be humble and open to what we don’t know.

References
Cole, S. (2017). Ignorance for dummies. Retrieved from https://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/585/transcript