The Dunning-Kruger Effect

The pinnacle virtue taught in America is to have confidence. No one will believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself. So, why do you think that guy in the corner office stinks of arrogance? It’s more than his cheap cologne you’re choking on.

The pinnacle virtue taught in America is to have confidence.  No one will believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself.  So, why do you think that guy in the corner office stinks of arrogance?  It’s more than his cheap cologne you’re choking on.

While at Cornell University, David Dunning and Justin Kruger performed a series of experiments under the hypothesis that “people tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains.”  This cognitive bias of illusory superiority has become known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.  The interesting insight discovered through their experiments was that “paradoxically, improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped [participants] recognize the limitations of their abilities.”

People who are not skilled in a particular area tend to overestimate their competence, whereas people with developed skill and training tend to underestimate their level of competence.  The most poignant observation to take away is that there’s a giant valley of difference between confidence and competence.

The overly confident people who overestimated their own knowledge were not off by a small margin.  They were way off base.  When tested in humor, grammar, and logic their scores placed them at the 12th percentile while they personally estimated themselves to be in the 62nd percentile.  The participants did not foolishly estimate themselves to be far superior to their peers, but it’s shocking just how inaccurate they were in terms of their own skill.

Here is what’s scary about the Dunning-Kruger Effect — Those who overestimate their own level of skill also fail to recognize genuine skill in others.  The poor performers in the bottom percentiles also have difficulty learning from feedback suggesting a need to improve.  Simply, ignorance knows no bounds.  If you are grossly inaccurate in your self-assessments, you’re also blind to other people’s talents and will likely be stunting your own personal growth.

One perspective that has forever shaped mine is that the “purpose of an education is to replace an empty mind with an open one.” (Malcom S. Forbes).  With the prevalence of social media, we are becoming more accustomed to sharing our views.  But we are trading resonance for repetition.  We tweet by fleeting instants rather than well understood insights.

A popular quote by Will Smith has spread through the social media avenues.  One of the world’s most successful actors states, “If you’re absent during my struggle, don’t expect to be present during my success.”  Will Smith’s words only apply to those who are highly successful – it’s only relevant to people like Will Smith.  If you’re a Joe Shmoe and flaunting this quote, you sound pretentious.

I highly admire Will Smith.  I grew up listening to his music and watching all of his early sitcom glory.  He turned down an ivy league education to pursue his dreams and eventually became the first hip hop artist to win a Grammy Award.  Smith’s now famous quote though is divisive.  And, it’s meant to be.  He lives in a world where too many fake people pander to him in order to leech off of his celebrity.  He needs to differentiate between the leeches that will suck him dry and those nurturing people who will grow alongside him as decent human beings.

Tell me, honestly, how many hands are in your cookie jar?  Seriously, do you even feel like you have enough cookies to go around?

We can only see far because we stand on the shoulders of giants.  It is concerning that people are defining their perspectives upon the twitter streams of famous actors.  Celebrities are surrounded by people who either worship them or are opportunistically pining for help earning money.  They are the 1%.  Those of us in the 99% who adhere to phrases like “if you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best” (from Marilyn Monroe) are suffering from an astonishing overestimated self-assessment.

Our perspectives are defined through borrowed words.  Dunning and Kruger quoted Charles Darwin’s belief that “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge” as a motivation for their observations.  They have also quoted Bertrand Russell saying “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.”  Standing upon the words of these giants, Dunning and Kruger were moved into action and eventually won the Nobel Prize in Psychology for their research.

There is nothing wrong with defining your values and principles through the words of celebrities.  I merely ask, “How does it guide your actions?”  Where does a world famous actor’s words lead you?

The spiral toward gross incompetence and jarringly inaccurate overestimated self-assessments is almost uniquely an American phenomenon.  Every other developed nation is advancing exponentially beyond every accomplishment America once touted so dearly.  While our culture always believes that confidence is key, the rest of the world is progressing through a culture of underestimating their abilities with an aim toward improvement and camaraderie.

The silver lining is that through minimal training we can greatly improve our ability to estimate our own level of skill we had previously lacked.  The cloud is that overconfidence keeps us unreceptive to helpful feedback.  If you really need to gauge your skill in anything, the easiest place to start is from zero.  An admission to knowing what you do not know is the most respectable virtue.  The more accurately we can see where we currently stand, the better we can aim toward the success we would like to be.

Meh…but what do I know about anything…

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