“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” Stephen Hawking
You make thousands of decisions a day and you’d probably say that they were pretty well thought out and rational. But what if I told you that while you were making those decisions there were any number of mental biases at play. Biases that had the power to distort your thinking and influence your decisions. Biases that left unchecked could make you act contrary to your best interests.
It’s scary to think that as you work towards your goals and dreams, you could be sabotaging your efforts without realising it. Often, you expect challenges to come from the outside but it’s alarming to realise that the biggest obstacles reside in your head. And none so dangerous as the ones that stop you trying to improve and grow, the ones that fool you into thinking there’s nothing more for you to do.
Have you ever met someone who is so incompetent but believes they’re an expert? They’re convinced of their superior knowledge yet to you they appear utterly deluded. If you have, then you may have come across a bias called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This bias is insidious because it tricks you into thinking that you know more than you do and that you’re better than you are. What’s worse is you’re totally unaware.
So how do you make sure that this bias doesn’t stop your growth in its tracks? Here’s how.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect
The Dunning-Kruger Effect was first proposed by psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger. They conducted experiments in which they asked participants to take a series of tests and then estimate how well they thought they did afterwards. What they found was that those who scored the worst in the tests estimated that they had performed much better than their peers while those who were more competent underrated themselves.
A subsequent study on student grades confirmed their findings and found that students in the lowest percentile showed the biggest gap between how well they believed they had performed and their actual results. As a result, the term Dunning-Kruger Effect was coined to describe the observation that the incompetent overestimated their abilities with the task. Their confidence exceeded their skill level.
The authors concluded that the problem was two-fold, first, the poor performers made poor decisions and came to erroneous conclusions but second, their incompetence prevented them from realising it.
In effect, they were incompetent but too incompetent to realise it.
Why should it matter to you? Why should you care? If you’re on a path to maximise your potential, this bias can limit your motivation to keep pushing and growing. Why would you want to improve if you already think you’re better than everyone else?
How do you fight it?
Now if you’re anything like me when I first learned about these biases, it was an instinctive: ‘How do I get rid of these?’ The problem is it’s not quite so simple. You will never eliminate these biases and you probably wouldn’t want to either. After all, they exist for legitimate reasons. They help you make sense of huge quantities of data, they give meaning to your experiences and allow you to react quickly. They are useful tools to have.
The key is to be aware that they are in operation and recognise when you are taking these shortcuts and possibly making decisions that don’t move you in a direction that truly benefits you.
Can you interrogate every decision? Probably not, but with the critical ones you need to be able to take a step back and take a look at the bigger picture. Question your assumptions and beliefs:
- Is what you believe really true?
- Why do you believe it?
- Is there evidence to support it or not?
- Are there opposing arguments to your opinions?
- Could those arguments be valid?
All of these questions will help you look at a situation more objectively when you are in the decision-making process. Overcoming the Dunning-Kruger effect requires a balance between being realistic about your level of competency while still having a growth mindset, the belief that you can keep improving.
Creating the life of your dreams won’t be easy
You will encounter obstacles and have to go through pain to grow. That doesn’t mean that you must fall victim to your brain’s well-meaning mental shortcuts. Instead, become more aware of these cognitive biases, learn to recognise them for what they are, and how to deal with them when they’re not working to your benefit. Because love them or hate them they’re here to stay.
Now over to you.
Have you experienced the Dunning-Kruger effect or think you know someone who has?
How has it impacted your life or theirs?
Let me know in the comments.
Thinking fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.
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), 1121-1134.