Fighting Dunning-Kruger

How to Keep the Dunning-Kruger Effect from Jeopardizing Your Education

A friend’s marketing career hit a bump when he hired a graphic artist to create a three-dimensional model for an important project.  She claimed she could do it, and he believed her.

Time dwindled away and she wasn’t getting it done.  She continued to insist she could do it, that she could do it exceptionally well, and that she could get it done by the deadline.  He continued to believe her.  How could he not? She was just so sure of herself!

We’ve all seen it: that off-key warbler who simply has to sing at her sister’s wedding, or the clerk who takes control of a department’s financial records only to botch them, or the friend who insists they can dye your tresses as well as any salon and ends up turning your hair green.

What is the Dunning-Kruger effect?

These kinds of disasters could have been averted were it not for the Dunning-Kruger effect, a common phenomenon in human behaviour that grants us a higher opinion of our own knowledge and abilities than we deserve.  The Dunning-Kruger effect is a kind of cognitive bias, or, in layperson’s terms, a persistent form of stupidity.

The effect was named for David Dunning and Justin Kruger, the psychologists who studied it, described it, and tested it.  What they found in their carefully designed experiments was a correlation between a person’s depth of ignorance about a subject and the height of their self-confidence regarding their knowledge of that subject.

You’re probably aware, if you’re studying psychology, that students who go into examinations feeling highly confident are more likely to make errors.  Doubt, it seems, can get you higher marks, as incompetence has a tendency to blind us to our own ignorance.

I see this happen quite often among writers, myself included.  The sad fact is that writing well takes time and humility, and no amount of experience seems to change that.  Taking the time to revise and being in the habit of reading well-written work will always be necessary to keeping your writing chops.

Unfortunately getting work as a writer often means applying for jobs with people who don’t know good writing, and these are more likely to hire a self-confident writer than one who can write well.  The highly competent don’t recognise their own capabilities and so hold themselves back, and too often it’s the overconfident bird that gets the worm.

Just ask my friend in marketing: He ended up having to let the artist go at the last minute and create the model himself.  It was disastrous, and more damaging to his once-successful career than it was to hers.

Don’t think you’re exempt; if you’re a homo sapiens with a heartbeat there’s probably at least one area in your life where your confidence exceeds your ability.  It’s time to take stock and turn it all around so that your overconfidence doesn’t trip up your academic performance, or, heaven forbid, your career.

Five ways to keep the Dunning-Kruger effect from holding you back

1).  Be humble.  Never assume you can do something better than someone else without putting that assumption to the test.  Be thorough when you study.  Go over that exam, reading the questions again and making sure you understood them the first time, then go over your answers.  Revise your papers as often as you can to rid them of mistakes and false assumptions.

2).  Be honest with yourself.  Are you really a better singer than Lady Gaga? Find someone whose opinion you trust and ask them for honest feedback.

3).  Be objective.  Stand back and look at yourself with a calm detachment.  Remind yourself that you can’t be certain of your own knowledge and abilities but that they are certain to improve with hard work.

4).  Learn more.  Don’t be content with just a little knowledge, which, experts agree, can be dangerous.  If you think you know a subject, keep learning it until you can find out what you don’t know.

5).  Don’t let someone else’s confidence trip you up.  If you need to hire someone make sure they come highly recommended from someone other than themselves, or that at least they can show you examples of their work and talk knowledgeably about it.

How many of the world’s messes can we blame on the Dunning-Kruger effect? I could answer that question with great confidence, but I’d probably be wrong.