Dunning-Kruger for Dummies

Dunning-Kruger for Dummies by Chris Green

Real knowledge is knowing the extent of one’s ignorance’ – Confucius

The Dunning–Kruger Effect posits that people with low ability at a task are likely to significantly overestimate their ability. It draws on the cognitive bias of illusory superiority which acknowledges the incapacity of people to recognise their shortcomings. Reading about the case of McArthur Wheeler, who in 1995 robbed a Pittsburgh bank in broad daylight, believing he had rendered himself invisible because he had rubbed lemon juice on his face, social psychologists, David Dunning and Justin Kruger got cracking on their research. They hypothesised that, while most people hold favourable views of their abilities in various social and intellectual domains, some mistakenly assess their abilities to be higher than they actually are. 

For their research, Dunning and Kruger tested participants on logic, grammar, and sense of humour. They found that those who performed in the bottom quartile rated their skills way above average. The middle two quartiles overrated their abilities but by smaller amounts, while those in the highest quartile underestimated their abilities. Subsequent studies of participants’ self-perception produced similar results.

The pair concluded that confidence is so highly prized that many pretend to be skilled rather than risk looking inadequate and losing face. Not only does their incomplete and misguided knowledge lead them to make mistakes, but those same deficits also prevent them from recognising they are making mistakes, and that other people are choosing more wisely. They remain ignorant of their own ignorance. This tendency frequently occurs because gaining a small amount of knowledge in an area about which one was previously ignorant can make people feel as though they are sufficiently informed to hold a view. Alexander Pope’s aphorism, ‘a little learning is a dangerous thing’ made in 1709, seems just as relevant today. 

We are all open to exploitation by the media. With universal access to the internet, everyone has become an expert on anything and everything, because they found out about it on Facebook or Twitter or read it online. It does not matter that the source might validate someone’s prejudices, paranoias or biases without having been properly cross-referenced or checked. It’s not surprising then that people who think that they know so much easily dismiss experts, expertise, and facts. 

It is easy to find high profile examples of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Donald Trump and Boris Johnson immediately spring to mind. Not to mention countless airhead celebrities from the world of sport and entertainment. But perhaps it might be more helpful to look around you and see who it might apply to in everyday life. This is an area that the theorists seem to have ignored. They are shy about giving real-life examples of DKE. Rather than build a dossier, they endlessly return to McArthur Wheeler and the lemon juice. You can trawl through dozens of pages on Google and you will find no further examples. You will therefore need to decide for yourself who suffers from illusory superiority. In these days of fast-track enlightenment, there must be plenty of scope. 

You might find the crass Brexiteer who constantly questions your diligently researched views on Facebook would qualify, or the conspiracy theorist, anti-vaxxer, who sees it as a ruse to insert microchips into the populace and insists it will change your DNA and make you imagine you are an iguana. You might see the elderly gent in front of you at the supermarket queue clutching his Daily Express with its ill-informed banner headlines as a likely candidate, or your colleague at work who reels off the solution to the middle-east situation. You yourself might not be exempt from the Dunning-Kruger Effect. I hold my hand up. There have been occasions when I have wanted to appear better informed than I was on some matter or other and have tried to blag it.

The incompetent can, of course, gain insight into their shortcomings, but paradoxically this comes by making them more competent, thus providing them with the meta-cognitive skills necessary to realise that they have performed poorly. Mostly, though, this is not the case. You could be forgiven for concluding that some even seem to take pride in their nescience.

Let us join Lenny Fusco. Having discovered the Moon no longer exists, Lenny believes the lizard people are responsible for its disappearance. He has been instructed that by keying in a series of sixty-six numbers in the correct order into his iPhone, a shape-shifting reptiloid from Alpha Draconis will pick up. So far he has little success, but he remains hopeful.

Lenny posts regular updates on his mission to discover the truth on a blog. He has four thousand followers. Dunning-Kruger is not mentioned on the blog, but one or two of the comments on his posts draw attention to the possibility that the DKE might help to explain Lenny’s delusions. Lenny puts these comments down to trolls. He maintains you are bound to get trolls when you have a popular blog. Other followers vigorously defend Lenny’s sagacity. Several of them even claim to have met with shape-shifting lizard people. Often in car parks late at night.  

Lenny is sure too that it was the lizard people who took his bike from outside BetterBet. The police are not so sure, but what do they know? Lenny feels they are out of touch. They need to renew their CrimeStoppers training. Besides, who else could have taken it? Several of his followers confirm they saw the shape-shifters lurking around outside the bookmakers shortly before his bike disappeared.

Perhaps we could introduce Lenny to Shane Duffy. I’m sure they would get along famously. Shane may not be a conspiracy theorist per se, but the two of them seem to share a staggering gullibility. Shane gets his fake news from The Sun newspaper, which also helps him to consolidate his myopic, misogynist, racist views. If anyone disagrees with Shane or tries to reason with him, they are referred to as a mongo. Rhymes with bongo. The term puzzled me at first, so I looked it up in the urban dictionary. A person who lacks intelligence, an actual idiot. Pot calling the kettle black? The expression could easily be used to describe Shane. Unable to hold down a regular job, Shane is a small-time criminal in an unremarkable English town. A spectacularly unsuccessful one to boot. In a classic example of Dunning-Kruger over-confidence, he publicly boasted about his criminal activities on Facebook. Following a tip-off, the police apprehended him and charged him with an array of offences to which he had effectively already confessed. On remand, Shane made the mistake of getting into a fight with an argumentative mixed-heritage mongo about benefit-scrounging asylum seekers. He is currently in custody awaiting trial. 

The desire to impress our peers is part and parcel of our way of life. With this come the pitfalls of attempting to do so should you be ill-equipped. The Dunning-Kruger Effect sits at the very heart of the contemporary zeitgeist. If I were to make a prediction, I would argue that as gullibility is actively encouraged, DKE is going to be around for a little while yet.

Copyright © Chris Green, 2020: All rights reserved

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