I often came across not so prepared people who combine lack of competence with a good deal of overconfidence.
One day I asked myself:
- What prompts an incompetent person to adopt an attitude that edges on arrogance?
- Is there a connection between ignorance and overconfidence?
These questions remained unanswered until I learned about the Dunning-Kruger effect.
Want to know what it is?
I will explain it right now with a story.
Mc Arthur Wheeler could not go unnoticed; 45 years old, 160 cm, 120 kg, he was easily recognized by witnesses as the responsible for two daylight robberies in Pittsburgh.
Moreover, the security cameras showed him uncovered, with a gun in his hand.
When he was arrested he was amazed: ” I was covered in lemon juice,” he told the detectives.
Wheeler had prepared himself carefully, covering his face with lemon juice in the belief that it would grant him invisibility.
“The lemon juice burned my face and eyes, I could hardly see,” he stated to the detectives.
During the robbery preparation, he had taken a selfie with a Polaroid camera to check that everything was working and he wasn’t in the picture; he had missed the shot, but he was sure that the lemon juice had made him invisible.
David Dunning, professor of social psychology at Cornell University (Ithaca, New York), read about it in the 1996 World Almanac.
The psychologist thought that if Wheeler was too stupid to be a robber, perhaps he was also too stupid to realize he was too stupid to be a robber.
His stupidity was hiding from him his own stupidity.
Dunning then wondered whether it would be possible to measure the level of competence each person believes he/she has by comparing it to the actual competence needed to tackle a task.
Over the next few weeks, he organized a research project with one of his undergraduates, Justin Kruger, which led to results that confirmed what he had intuited.
David Dunning and Justin Kruger gave their name to a cognitive bias that leads to some interesting conclusions:
- people with limited knowledge of a topic tend to overestimate their knowledge by convincing themselves that they are experts;
- those who are not experts in a matter have difficulty (and in some cases the inability) to recognize their limits and errors in judgment;
- on the contrary, the ownership of a genuine competence tends to produce a weaker perception of one’s competence and a decrease in self-confidence;
- competent people are generally more likely to see in others a degree of preparation/understanding equal to their own.
The two psychologists, therefore, drew the conclusion that
the error of the incompetent comes from a misjudgment about his account; that of a highly competent person comes from a misunderstanding about the account of others!
The chart at the top of the page is typical of the Dunning-Kruger effect:
- when our competence to deal with a specific topic is rather low our self-confidence is very high;
- as our competence and awareness of the challenges grow, our self-confidence declines;
- when our competence to deal with the topic becomes solid, the awareness of being able to succeed in the task grows, but the confidence in the final result does not reach the initial one (when our competence was much lower).
Is all this genuinely new? Not really.
Here are quotes from some prominent intellectuals who had long dealt with the subject:
- Charles Darwin
- Ignorance creates confidence more often than knowledge.
- Bertrand Russell
- One of the most painful things about our time is that people with certainties are stupid, while those with imagination and understanding are full of doubts.
- I had to conclude that I was more knowledgeable than that man, who thought he knew and did not know; on the contrary, I who did not know didn’t even think I knew.
The merit of David Dunning and Justin Kruger is to have given a quantitative basis to this cognitive bias and to have contributed to its diffusion: to learn more about it you can read the original study.
Now, let’s get to the point: what I learnt from the Dunning-Kruger effect?
A few things, that changed substantially my way to approach people and their knowledge:
- I check the robustness of the competence of people who appear to be very confident. Relying on people who are unaware of their incompetence can be very dangerous;
- I’m aware that, when faced with a question they can’t answer or a complex situation, people who say “I don’t know” or “I don’t have a solution” are the most likely to find good answers and solutions;
- truly knowledgeable people are unlikely to show arrogant attitude;
- I always look for knowledge where it doesn’t seem to exist, because prepared people usually have little awareness of their own competence and self-confidence.
What do you think about this?
Can this post change the way you deal with arrogant people?