When You Know Nothing but Think You Know Everything

Part 1: Research on ignorance and the Trump Effect

Posted Nov 04, 2019

"Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge." - Charles Darwin

For many people, the more you learn, the more you realize how little you actually know. You realize that there are gaps in your knowledge, and you may or may not want to fill in those gaps to become more informed about the topic.

But what happens when you lack this awareness? What if you are so afflicted by your ignorance that you are incapable of knowing that you are lacking knowledge in a particular area?

The Dunning Kruger Effect (DKE) occurs when your own incompetence prevents you from seeing your incompetence.

Wait, what?

And, why should you care?

Because the world is full of know-it-alls who don’t actually have any idea of what they are talking about—and the more aware we become of this phenomenon the better we’ll be at deciphering the trolls spouting fake news from the truth-tellers.

Last September, President Donald Trump tweeted that Alabama, along with the Carolinas and Georgia, was “most likely to be hit (much) harder than anticipated" by Hurricane Dorian. Within hours the National Weather Service in Birmingham, Alabama, tweeted that “Alabama will not see any impacts from #Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama. The system will remain too far east.” 

He also asserted in a speech in Pittsburgh: "We’re building a wall on the border of New Mexico and we’re building a wall in Colorado, we’re building a beautiful wall, a big one that really works that you can’t get over, you can’t get under, and we’re building a wall in Texas. We’re not building a wall in Kansas but they get the benefit of the walls we just mentioned." Colorado does not share its border with Mexico.

In both instances, as the DKE would predict (for more, see here), the President defended his initial position vehemently, believing it to be true and altering maps or stretching facts to get his statements to be considered as true. 

The Dunning Kruger Effect can be quite harmful, especially when action and words have consequences.

What Is the Dunning Kruger Effect?

The effect was first outlined in a 1999 paper by two Cornell psychologists, Justin Kruger and David Dunning. The Dunning and Kruger experiments tested participants in areas of grammar, humor, and logic and compared the student’s actual results with each participant's judgment of how well they did on the tests.

In the humor experiment, for example, participants were given a set of jokes and asked to rate how funny they were on a scale of 1–11. The ratings were then compared to the "funny" ratings of eight professional comedians (the participants didn't know that part). Quite a task. (Honestly, I have no idea how I would do on this.)

As one last question, participants were asked to estimate how good they were at recognizing something as funny compared with a typical Cornell student.

What Did Dunning and Kruger Find?

The participants who were the worst at judging whether a joke was funny (when compared with the comedians) thought they were above average at the task. For example, people with test scores in the 12th percentile estimated themselves to be in the 62nd percentile. On the other hand, participants who did really well on the task thought they were a little worse than they really were.

The other tasks used LSAT questions for logic and a National Teacher Examination prep book (because humor can definitely be subjective). But the results always held: People kept rating themselves just about average or above, even when they scored terribly .

The basis of the DKE effect: The less competent you are at something socially or intellectually, the more confident you will be in your abilities in that area. This overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled or incompetent in the approaches they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction suffer two major problems. Not only do they make bad choices and therefore reach the wrong conclusions, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize their incompetence. Instead, they are left with the mistaken impression that they are doing just fine.

In simple terms: What you don’t know can hurt you because, when you do the wrong thing, you won’t know it.

What We Can Learn From the Dunning Kruger Experiment

The DKE effect further supports another well-known psychological effect, which proposes that most people tend to overestimate their capabilities. People will rate themselves as average or above average on essentially all tasks. If you understand how averages work you know this is impossible (some people have to be below average, some are average, and some are above average for the whole thing to work).

One puzzling aspect of the results is how the incompetent fail, through life experience, to learn that they are unskilled. If a person keeps messing something up, wouldn't he eventually learn? I bet you're answering yes here. But wait.

Why does this happen?

One reason is that people rarely receive negative feedback about their skills and abilities from others in everyday life. We can call this tact, being diplomatic, or respect for others, but the end result is the same: We typically shy away from telling people they messed up. But what DKE teaches us is that people need honest feedback.

In my work with clients as well as in my personal relationships, I call this radical transparency. This refers to the need to hold others accountable for their actions—being completely honest with others about the impact that their words and actions have on you.

And if people do receive negative feedback, they still must come to an accurate understanding of why that failure has occurred. The problem with failure is that it is subject to more ambiguity than success. For success to occur, many things must go right: The person must be skilled, apply effort, and perhaps get lucky.

For failure to occur, the lack of any one of these components is sufficient. Because of this, even if people receive feedback that points to a lack of skill, they may attribute it to some other factor (often an external factor—the weather was bad so I was off my game) or they may potentially blame others for the misunderstanding (to protect their self-image). See the Fundamental Attribution Error for more on this tendency.

There's another reason why people may not accept that they are incompetent or lacking knowledge. They may be ignorant of an important form of feedback: social comparison. One of the ways we learn about our competencies is by observing the actions of others. Research shows that, compared with people who are experts in particular areas, people who are incompetent in those same areas are less able to identify the skills in others. Consequently, they are unable to learn that they had less competence in the area and were more likely to overestimate themselves.

Finally, it is typically true that the things we aren't great at, we don't practice much. This means that people who are incompetent in a specific area aren't faced with their incompetence often, which gives them less opportunity to correct their errors, exacerbating the deficiencies.

Outside of the lab, Dunning and Kruger demonstrated the DKE at a gun-shooting event. They recruited gun hobbyists who voluntarily completed a 10-question firearm-safety and -knowledge quiz. What did they find? The gun owners who knew the least about gun safety extremely overestimated their knowledge. I don’t know about you, but for me this really does raise questions (and doubts) about Americans’ Second Amendment fight around gun ownership: Could it be that those least knowledgeable about either the Constitution or guns and gun-safety are driving that discussion?

Here's our first takeaway: When you think you're really good at something, find an objective way to assess your expertise. You may see you're falling victim to DKE without knowing it (because you wouldn't).

We are all human, after all.

In our next post, we’ll cover other important aspects of the DKE, including its impact on happiness, and potential solutions for us all to use in everyday life.

References

Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of personality and social psychology, 77 6, 1121-34 .