In 1999, Justin Kruger and David Dunning identified a flaw in the human brain.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a cognitive bias whereby poor performers tend to overestimate their competence in any given field. Sounds quite safe and bland doesn’t it? But to put it another way some people who know the least about something are convinced that they are an expert in it. So those least qualified to give an opinion can be the most convinced of their opinion. And the opposite is true too; in studies high performers tended to underestimate their exam results (although to a much lesser extent that the poor performers overestimate theirs).
“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”, Charles Darwin
Why is this? Kruger and Dunning think that those who really suck at a subject are so bad that they lack the skills to realize just how bad they are. Also, because they have only a little knowledge about a subject they may not know how much they do not know about it. Hmm, after that sentence you’re probably wondering how much I know about the English language!
Life is complex yet we humans like things simple. We like short confident answers even if the questions are large and imponderable. Alas, the more you study a subject, the more you find there is to study. Consequently, experts tend not to come to snap decisions. A Google search may inform you that that lump on your arm is a malignant cancer but your doctor will try to rule out all of the other more probable causes first. If your computer is acting up then the expert may identify a long list of possible causes while the incompetent might confidently tell you that it’s a virus and you lose all your data after reinstalling the operating system.
“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance” – Confucius
While this can be definitely be an annoyance, it can also be a significant problem because we’re crap at identifying experts. We think an expert is someone who has all the answers and the incompetent is the one who is reluctant to give a simple yes or no answer. In other words we confuse the two completely.
So the next time you see someone telling you that they’re right and everyone else is wrong and that you can discover the secret of health, longevity, finance or jumbo jet maintenance by buying his or her book, or attending a seminar … ask yourself a question : Is having all the answers really a good thing?
Test the Dunning-Kruger effect out by asking questions below, I can guarantee that I barely have any answers 🙂
PubMed – Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.