Is the Dunning-Kruger effect real or nah?

Whether or not our level of confidence in areas of expertise can be mathematically explained, it’s worth keeping in mind.

The Dunning-Kruger effect has taken hold of the collective Internet hive-mind over the last 20 years. In just about every Discord group I’m active in, subreddit I’ve actively followed, or social network I’ve engaged with, someone at some point has brought up how inexperienced amateurs confidently believe they are more intelligent on a topic than life-long experts in the field.

If you aren’t familiar with the Dunning-Kruger effect, allow me to quickly explain with all the conviction of someone who barely understands the math behind the concept. Like a person who has never watched Citizen Kane declaring that the 1941 film is a cinematic masterpiece, I will now tell you how the Dunning-Kruger effect explains the entirety of human social interactions….

Heh. Just kidding. I wouldn’t dare do that. All I know about Dunning-Kruger is summed up in the chart below.

I stole this image from Addy Bhardwaj – go check out their article on the topic.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a concept of how people with less experience have greater confidence in their expertise than actual experts. If those people can escape from the heights of their ego and choose to learn more about the chosen topic, they lose confidence since it is now offset by their recognition that there is so much more that they don’t know. Over time, if they continue learning and become a true expert in the field, their confidence goes back up again… but never to the same level that it was at when they knew hardly anything at all.

Being a well-practiced self-doubter, I try to use the Dunning-Kruger effect regularly to keep myself in check. It’s a reminder that I should temper my bold claims on the off-chance that I might actually be spectacularly wrong, and that habit, I hope, gives me a chance at learning a bit more along the way.

It’s that same habit which has me thinking curious thoughts tonight.

You see, the Internet’s use of the Dunning-Kruger effect as a weapon of judgement against those we deem “less knowledgeable” may actually reveal something lacking in ourselves.

Firstly, the Dunning-Kruger effect describes how people with a lack of knowledge will perform self-assessments which rate them as more intelligent or experienced than others. There’s some patting on the back and ego-boosting going on here that’s pretty easy to explain and recognize in others.

This is where most of the discussions and examples of the Dunning-Kruger effect end, but that doesn’t actually cover the entire scope of the phenomena. We are, in effect, suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect when we ignore the entire scope in order to judge others as falling into it themselves. We have just enough knowledge of D-K in order to spot how less experienced individuals are ignorantly making some claim that we know the real truth about, but we don’t have enough knowledge to recognize the remaining qualifiers of the effect and how they impact us.

This leads to my first question of the night: When the Dunning-Kruger effect is used carelessly to judge others as being “less than”, does it defeat itself?

Or, perhaps more to the point, do we defeat ourselves?

Is it not the improper judgement of others that causes the Dunning-Kruger effect to manifest in the first place? Oh! How tempting it must be to turn D-K into a shield which protects us from our own self-judgement! If everyone else is suffering from the effect, then we truly are the experts!

That’s dangerous, and we should be on the lookout for when it’s being used like that. Not so much when other people use it like that, but when we do.

There is another side of the Dunning-Kruger effect which gets much less attention (probably because it’s not as useful when judging people). On the other end of the spectrum, where the experts are, they also suffer. Instead of incorrectly believing themselves to be experts, they believe that all others around them are also experts. They limit themselves and pull back from correcting their peers who need that correction.

It all compounds in on itself, then. The unintelligent believe they are experts, and the real experts treat those people with respect as if they are also experts. This sign of respect gives validation to the unintelligent person, while amplifying doubt within those who have experience that they might have gotten something wrong.

A big mess, if you ask me.

So… how do we fix this?

I think it comes down to humility and respect, but holding onto your confidence no matter where you are on the line. This is a tight balance to achieve, but if managed properly it could be a key to lifting us up as individuals and as a collective.

Confidence and humility are not mutually exclusive. We can make bold statements about our convictions while still recognizing we may be wrong and need to learn something new. We can disagree with someone else’s bold statements, and even recognize the person is suffering from D-K, while still treating them with the basic respect every human being deserves.

We cannot change how others act, so the only choice we have is to keep ourselves in check. On both ends of the spectrum of the Dunning-Kruger effect, no matter what the topic, we can put into practice the habit of being ready to change our minds when we learn new information (without, of course, always changing our minds simply because new information has been given to us, no matter how fallible or wrong).

There will always be people who choose disrespect and judgement over humility, or fall into imposter syndrome instead of feeling good about their achievements, but we can’t let those people stop us from pushing forward ourselves.

Shoot. If we did that, then the Dunning-Kruger effect will have beat us. I, for one, am not ready to bend the knee.

So… what did we learn today? Maybe nothing. I don’t know. That’s kind of the point of this topic. These are all just random thoughts inspired by an article I read about how the entire concept of the Dunning-Kruger effect may (or may not) be false (wouldn’t that be ironic?).

If you’re going to force me to sum up my ideas, though:

  1. Don’t be so quick to use the Dunning-Kruger effect to judge others for being what you believe is ignorant.
  2. Be willing to be corrected, and actively look for holes in your knowledge.
  3. Speak with confidence about what you believe until you are shown to be wrong.

“A very popular error: having the courage of one’s convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one’s convictions.”

– Frederick Nietzsche (someone whose bold statements were used to do very bad things)

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