Trumped-up confidence

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Anthropology / Myths / Psychology

Know anyone whose confidence in their own ability far outweighs their actual skills? It’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

The Dunning–Kruger Effect is the ignorance of one’s own ignorance. Image credit Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

A question of confidence

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are so sure of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubt. –Nobel Prize Winner Bertrand Russell

A lack of confidence is extremely common: seventy percent of us experience the imposter syndrome. Despite good evidence to the contrary, we worry we’re too inexperienced and incompetent to be doing our jobs. So we work harder to try to prove our abilities, all the while being filled with self-doubt.

But you probably know someone who seems to suffer from the opposite problem: misplaced confidence. Think of the infuriating person who dominates meetings despite clearly knowing very little about the topic being discussed. Or the person who is boring you stupid at a party, waxing lyrical – and apparently knowledgably – about a topic they are unmistakably ignorant about. Or the terrible driver who thinks they are one of the best. We all know someone.

This flipside to the imposter syndrome is known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

How funny is this joke?

In 1999, David Dunning, and his then student Justin Kruger, published a paper ‘Unskilled and unaware of it’. They describe a series of experiments designed to uncover the relationship between a person’s skill in a certain area, and that person’s perception of their ability in the same area.

Across tests of grammar, humour and logic, students who performed worst also hugely overestimated their abilities. Although on average, they did worse in these tests than 88% of others, these students estimated they had performed better than two-thirds of the other students.

For example, Dunning and Kruger asked 65 students to rate how funny certain jokes were. They then compared the students’ ratings with those of professional comedians. The students who were terrible at predicting what other people would find funny declared themselves to be excellent judges of humour.

In all cases, the confidence of the lowest-performing students well and truly surpassed their skills. It’s easy to understand how this could happen: if you know virtually nothing about grammar, of course you are unlikely to recognise when you make grammatical mistakes. We are simply not good at knowing what we don’t know.

Kruger and Dunning begin their paper with the now-famous example of McArthur Wheeler. Wheeler attempted to rob two banks in broad daylight with no disguise. It turns out he believed that covering his face with lemon juice would make him invisible to security cameras. He wasn’t under the influence of drugs, or delusional; he was just completely wrong about a key part of his robbery plan. The story goes Wheeler was dumbfounded when police showed him the clear-as-a-bell video footage of himself mid-robbery.

This became the perfect example of the Dunning-Kruger Effect: not only was McArthur incompetent at being a bank robber, his incompetence left him completely unable to recognise his incompetence.

We don’t know what we don’t know

As John Cleese famously put it: ‘If you’re very, very stupid, how can you possibly realise that you’re very, very stupid?’

The Dunning-Kruger Effect has now been widely researched. Whether you look at debating, financial knowledge, chess, firearm safety, emotional intelligence or driving ability, the story is the same. Unskilled people simply don’t have the ability to recognise their lack of skills. If you don’t know how to play chess very well, you are completely ignorant to all the far better chess moves you could be making.

The problem isn’t when we know absolutely nothing about a topic. ‘Most people have no trouble identifying their inability to translate Slovenian proverbs, reconstruct a V-8 engine, or diagnose acute disseminated encephalomyelitis’. The problem arises when we know a little bit, but not enough to realise how little we know (a graph explains it better).

An important point to take away from these studies is that the Dunning-Kruger Effect isn’t about ridiculing the stupidity of others. It’s about recognising the traps we all fall into. How do we tackle the effect? By improving our skills. As we become more competent at something, at the same time we become better at recognising the limits of our abilities.

Students who originally estimated that they got five out of ten logic puzzles correct (when in reality they struggled to get one right) changed their tune after getting training. After being taught the basics of how to solve logic puzzles, the same students now predicted they would score one out of ten.

The challenge for all of us is clear. Next time we feel confident about something, we need to think carefully. Is our confidence a sign of genuine ability, or of complete incompetence?

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2 Comments

  1. Fascinating. I must admit I feel that I am one of those individuals that tends to under rate my capability, which I feel sensitises me to identifying the other extreme, as in this post. In my experience, there are more males who fall into this category, but that could be a warped perception I have as the industry I work in is about 20% female.
    PS Time for a space post again? 🙂 Surely Cassini has inspired a post or two?

    • Ha ha! I’m not very good at delivering on space posts, am I?! I generally try and avoid topics that are currently in the news so Cassini will have to wait. Any other suggestions?

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