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What is the Dunning-Kurger effect?

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Explaining the Dunning-Kruger effect on knowledge and confidence.

January 6, 1995, 2:47 p.m., Pittsburgh, United States. A man robs a bank with his face covered in lemon juice.

His name was McArthur Wheeler, and he believed that rubbing lemon juice on his face would make him invisible to surveillance cameras. He thought this because lemon juice works as invisible ink on a piece of paper. Wheeler was so convinced that his plan was foolproof that he smiled at the cameras before leaving (Sellars, 2023; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 1996; Centre Daily Times, 1996), that he thought no camera could see his invisible face.

To Wheeler’s surprise, the police arrested him effortlessly soon after. Upon seeing the surveillance footage, Wheeler incredulously said, “But I wore the juice!”

Baffled by the news, Professor David Dunning, along with Justin Kruger, investigated similar subjects (Morris, 2017). They concluded that people with little knowledge of something, paradoxically tend to overestimate themselves.

Let’s look at it with a graph, note the red points:

By Mental Garden
  • Point 1: As we learn something new, we gain a lot of confidence because we feel we are progressing quickly. However, we are so ignorant that we aren’t even aware of how little we know. We have a false illusion of competence.
  • Point 2: Those who continue learning quickly see the complexity of the subject and their confidence plummets. A reality check that makes them question their knowledge.
  • Point 3: The more we learn, the more we realize we are novices, not masters. Many give up here because the path to wisdom seems overwhelming.
  • Point 4: Only if we persevere can we regain confidence while learning. In the end, we will be experts and almost as confident in our abilities as we were just after starting when we were ignorant.

That is, if an ignorant person, a student, and an expert debated on a topic:

  • The ignorant person would speak with great confidence, expressing their opinions very assertively and without doubt.
  • The student knows more than the ignorant person but lacks confidence in their knowledge and feels overwhelmed by the ignorant person’s confidence.
  • The expert has confidence and offers a valuable perspective, though they express with caution, nuances, and reflection on the complexity of the matter.

To the eyes of inexperienced people, the ignorant person appears to be on the same level as the expert, and if the expert does not rebut them, they even seem to know more. In my opinion, the most dangerous thing is that an ignorant person can become a leader solely due to their boldness.

Train your critical attitude, don’t buy ideas from anyone just because they sound good.

Photo of Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

Everyone thinks they are great drivers

93% of Americans think they are better drivers than average (Svenson, 1981). (Which is mathematically impossible, 43% of Americans are unaware of how poorly they drive). Swedes are more aware of this; only 69% believe they drive better than average.

Is it a coincidence? No, another study confirms the same (McCormick et al., 1986).

This could explain why road safety campaigns are so ineffective. Drivers might think: “Why should I pay attention to road safety information? A responsible, reliable, and safe driver like me doesn’t need to be reminded of how to drive; that’s for all those clumsy drivers of lesser caliber who flood the roads.”

That’s our understanding level.

Everyone thinks they are the healthiest in their group

People were asked to compare their lifestyle habits with their friends. Most participants claimed to have healthier habits than the average of their peers and that they would continue to be so in the future (Hoorens & Harris, 1998).

That’s how bold we are.

Everyone thinks they have a better memory than others

People aged 65 were asked to compare their current memory with that of their youth. All claimed to have lost memory. Then they were asked if their memory was better than others of the same age, and most claimed to have better memory than average (Schmidt et al., 1999).

They may have forgotten many things, but not their confidence in themselves.

Other absurd examples:

  • Most people believe their actions are more just than those of others (Liebrand et al., 1986).
  • Most people believe they will have better future health outcomes than the average of their surroundings (Weinstein, 1980).
  • Most people believe they are more popular and have more friends than the average of their social circle (Zuckerman & Jost, 2001).
  • 70% of students believe they are better leaders than average, 85% believe they socialize better than average, and 25% believe they are among the top 1% in socializing (Alicke et al., 2005). I repeat, 25% believe they are in the top 1%. Ridiculous.

A mix of little self-criticism, difficulty in comparison, and lack of data.

Incompetent people are not only bad at the task but also incapable of evaluating their performance correctly. This leads them to overestimate their abilities. (McIntosh et al., 2019). Worse if there isn’t even an easy way to compare with others’ performance (Mazor & Fleming, 2021).

That’s what happened with drivers and road safety campaigns.

As always, we return to Greek wisdom, an inexhaustible source of knowledge.

Socrates, who was Plato’s teacher and one of the most transcendental philosophers in history, claimed that he, in reality, knew very little and learned from others. Look at some of his quotes; his simplicity and desire to learn inspire me.

— And now I do not know what virtue is; perhaps you knew it before talking with me, but now you are certainly like me, one who does not know. (Meno’s Dialogue).

— I know nothing more than something insignificant: I simply receive the argument of a wise man and treat it fairly. (Theaetetus’ Dialogue).

Leonidas Drosis, (2013). Academia Modern, Athens, Greece. Available on Wikipedia

That is precisely the mentality.

It happened to me when I finished my university degree: I believed I was an expert, but I quickly lost that delusion. When I entered my master’s program, I realized how little I knew. Now I know quite a bit, but I’m still below professors and other experts.

The path to wisdom never ends.

???? Your turn: Has it ever happened to you that you thought you knew a lot, only to get a reality check and realize that wasn’t the case?

✍️ Quote of the day: “Not knowing the extent of your own ignorance is part of the human condition. The problem is that we see it in others and not in ourselves.” David Dunning

Share it with that person who always has answers for everything.

Thanks for reading me ????, see you soon ????.

  1. Centre Daily Times. (1996, 7 enero). Newspapers.com https://www.newspapers.com/article/centre-daily-times-lemon-juice-didnt-wo/111378933/
  2. Hoorens, V., & Harris, P. (1998). Distortions in reports of health behaviors: The time span effect and illusory superiority. Psychology & Health, 13(3), 451–466. https://doi.org/10.1080/08870449808407303
  3. Liebrand, W. B., Messick, D. M., & Wolters, F. J. (1986). Why we are fairer than others: A cross-cultural replication and extension. Journal Of Experimental Social Psychology, 22(6), 590–604. https://doi.org/10.1016/0022-1031(86)90052-1
  4. Mazor, M., & Fleming, S. M. (2021). The Dunning-Kruger effect revisited. Nature Human Behaviour, 5(6), 677–678. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-021-01101-z
  5. McCormick, I. A., Walkey, F. H., & Green, D. E. (1986). Comparative perceptions of driver ability — A confirmation and expansion. Accident Analysis And Prevention, 18(3), 205–208. https://doi.org/10.1016/0001-4575(86)90004-7
  6. McIntosh, R. D., Fowler, E. A., Lyu, T., & Della Sala, S. (2019). Wise up: Clarifying the role of metacognition in the Dunning-Kruger effect. Journal Of Experimental Psychology. General, 148(11), 1882–1897. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000579
  7. Morris, E. (2017, 14 agosto). The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is (Part 1). Opinionator. https://archive.nytimes.com/opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/20/the-anosognosics-dilemma-1/
  8. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. (1996, 21 marzo). Newspapers.com. https://www.newspapers.com/article/pittsburgh-post-gazette-dumb1/73185038/
  9. Plato. Meno’s Dialogue
  10. Plato. Teeteto’s Dialogue.
  11. Resnick, B. (2019, 26 junio). An expert on human blind spots gives advice on how to think. Vox. https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2019/1/31/18200497/dunning-kruger-effect-explained-trump
  12. Schmidt, I. W., Berg, I. J., & Deelman, B. G. (1999). Illusory Superiority in Self-Reported Memory of Older Adults. Neuropsychology, Development, And Cognition. Section B, Aging, Neuropsychology And Cognition/Aging, Neuropsychology And Cognition, 6(4), 288–301. https://doi.org/10.1076/1382-5585(199912)06:04;1-b;ft288
  13. Socrates, de Leonidas Drosis (2013), Academia de Atenas, Grecia — Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Socrates_by_Leonidas_Drosis,_Athens_-_Academy_of_Athens.JPG
  14. Svenson, O. (1981). Are we all less risky and more skillful than our fellow drivers? Acta Psychologica, 47(2), 143–148. https://doi.org/10.1016/0001-6918(81)90005-6
  15. Weinstein, N. D. (1980). Unrealistic optimism about future life events. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 39(5), 806–820. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.39.5.806
  16. Zuckerman, E. W., & Jost, J. T. (2001). What Makes You Think You’re so Popular? Self-Evaluation Maintenance and the Subjective Side of the «Friendship Paradox». Social Psychology Quarterly, 64(3), 207. https://doi.org/10.2307/3090112



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