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Friday, August 30, 2013

Don't Know Much -- The Dunning-Kruger Effect

Hang with me here. Those of you who have not yet read this information may find something simple and yet profound.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a psychological effect shown in an experiment by Justin Kruger and David Dunning at Cornell University and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in December 1999.

The effect establishes that people don't realize their level of knowledge on a subject. OK, OK -- this sounds pretty ridiculous, but here are the findings.

People who know little about a subject think that they know more than they actually know. People who know a lot about a subject think that they know less than they do.

So, the more people know about a subject, the less they think they know about it. But the more they know about a subject, the better they know how well they know the subject.

Here is how the effect works in psychological terms:

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias (a pattern of deviation in judgment in which people  create their own subjective social reality). In this bias, unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority (overestimating their positive qualities and abilities and underestimating their negative qualities), mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. 

This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes. Metacognition is defined as "knowing about knowing." J.H. Favell says, "I am engaging in metacognition if I notice that I am having more trouble learning A than B; [or] if it strikes me that I should double check C before accepting it as fact."

Metacognition distinguishes between Monitoring—making judgments about the strength of one's memories—and Control—using those judgments to guide behavior (in particular, to guide study choices)

Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. David Dunning and Justin Kruger conclude, "the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others."

(Kruger, Justin; David Dunning. "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. 1999)

Dunning and Kruger proposed that, for a given skill, incompetent people will:
  1. tend to overestimate their own level of skill;
  2. fail to recognize genuine skill in others;
  3. fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy;
  4. recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they are exposed to training for that skill.
Dunning has since drawn an analogy ("the anosognosia -- deficit of self-awareness -- of everyday life") with a condition in which a person who suffers a physical disability because of brain injury seems unaware of or denies the existence of the disability, even for dramatic impairments such as blindness or paralysis.

(Dunning, David, “Self-Insight: Roadblocks and Detours on the Path to Knowing Thyself 
(Essays in Social Psychology),” Psychology Press: 2005, pp. 14–15.)

The Point of Dunning-Kruger

We are simply not very good at knowing what we don't know.

There are things we know we know about anything. There are things we know we don't know. And there are things that are unknown unknowns. We don't know that we don't know. If we have,
for lack of a better term, damage to our expertise or imperfection in our knowledge or skill, we’re left literally not knowing that we have that damage.
And so, we tend to gravitate to what we're competent at, and then we write off the rest of the world. This deficit of self-awareness is commonplace, and it's really self-inflicted brain injury that has enormous potential to hurt us and all those with whom we have interaction. Let me explain:

(1) Personal Dilemmas

We exist in a real state of dilemma after dilemma. We are forced to deal with situations and decisions that greatly effect our quality of life. Pressing, difficult problems require thorough understanding through personal research, evaluation, and communication.

For example, we are faced with questions like the following:

Should I find new friends?
Should I fall in love?
Should I pursue this course of study?
Should I take this job?
Should I get married?
Should I become a mother or a father?
Should I change careers?
Should I buy a home?
Should I get divorced?

After researching for every possible answer, spending countless sleepless nights fretting outcomes, and finally seeking the advice of a trusted professional, we still tend to find it difficult to decide what to do because we now realize we have lived a blinkered existence full of personal prejudice and weakly supported conceptions.

What do we do after weighing advice and options? We typically remain in a state of miserable indecision because now we know more about what we still don't know enough about. We understand our inadequacy to overcome our own stupidity, and this perceived incompetence creates even more burdensome pressure.

We just can't get over the fact that we believe that we are "different." We truly convince ourselves that others "can't help us." We view others and differing opinions as alien and threatening to our well being. Then, we resist insightful knowledge as "no help." Suddenly, our emotions explode and wisdom takes a holiday.

(2) Teaching Others

We face many obligations to provide useful, vital information we have acquired to other human beings. Unless we instruct our family and our loved ones about dangers in their environment and about their necessary social obligations, we risk losing them. Shirking these obligations not only endangers these people but also increases the risk of allowing them to interfere dangerously in the lives of others. 

Therefore, we teach what we believe we know. Yet, therein lies the problem of instruction. Dunning-Kruger comes into play in all education. We have proven ourselves to be grossly imperfect teachers, yet we often refuse to acknowledge our shortcomings. Again -- "We are simply not very good at knowing what we don't know." We pride ourselves on being "correct" to the point of becoming arrogant and egotistical. Need I ask you to consider your most vainglorious intelligent college professor as a model for this behavior?

Narcissistic or stupid, many of us pass on knowledge that is illogical and largely subjective. We hear or read an opinion so often that we unknowingly accept its reiteration as fact. Then, we recapitulate the information to many others who also see truth as more dependent upon repetition than personal investigation. "Smoke" is commonly believed to be "fire," and half-truths are often accepted as gospel.

Truly dangerous instruction involves imposed limitation. When we dismiss necessary inquiry and disallow further inquest, we poison minds. As we hear people profess "they know," we must always question their supreme knowledge in terms of motive and occasion. Why would a person limit investigation if not for power or personal gain? History is full of tyrants who understood ruling and controlling others demanded limiting what their subjects "knew" and "didn't know."

The worst teaching stifles creativity. Knowledge that creates limits "within the box" or "inside the textbook" kills human spirit. For this reason, we must always accept what we don't "know." When we accept a concept or theory, we merely serve to limit imagination. Consider that the B-52, the computer, or even something as elementary as the electric light bulb was a dream 150 years ago.

Leaving It At Jack Shit

Maybe I need to re-evaluate the simple logic of my least favorite popular saying: "You don't know jack shit." Maybe I haven't been smart enough to realize the worth of the quotation. I do understand that in British English (13th century) jack was a term to designate an average peasant at the bottom of the social pyramid. And, of course, in addition shit symbolizes material of no value. So, it seems jack shit is the lowest of the low when it comes to human comprehension.

So, perhaps it is wiser to consider my level of knowledge at this point in time closer to below understanding jack shit than to perceiving the meaning of life on the planet. And you believe you are faced with a dilemma? 13th century or 21st century, I think what we "know" is all relative and pretty inaccurate. And, that's a fact, Jack.

Go Figure...

Jimmy Carter, one of our most intelligent presidents and "victim" of knowing, 
with IQ of 175.

Ronald Reagan, less intelligent yet inspiring and effective by "not knowing," 
with reported IQ of 105.

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