Dunning-Kruger: Imposter Syndrome’s Opposite

Whereas many of us have experienced aspects of the imposter syndrome and can admit it, how many among us knows they’ve experienced its polar opposite: the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) is one who didn’t know of Dunning-Kruger (because it wasn’t yet a thing) but did utter these words: One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision. Well, that about sums up Dunning-Kruger.

Along these same lines, “Frequently Wrong But Never In Doubt” is how singer-songwriter Cheryl Wheeler musically described an acquaintance in 1993. Probably everyone has known someone like this.

Psychologist David Dunning and his student Justin Kruger coined the term Dunning-Kruger effect after researching the phenomenon of the inability of incompetent people to recognize their own level of incompetence.

One of Dunning’s conclusions: “We are all poor performers at some things.” Or, as he has succinctly stated on the subject, We Are All Confident Idiots.”

It’s not that we’re uninformed, Dunning states—we’re misinformed. “An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge.”

There are possible solutions, though. When we’re in groups, for instance, we can appoint someone “to serve as a devil’s advocate — a person whose job is to question and criticize the group’s logic.” And as individuals we can try to play the same type of role (Big Think):

It helps to try practicing what the psychologist Charles Lord calls ‘considering the opposite.’ To do this, I often imagine myself in a future in which I have turned out to be wrong in a decision, and then consider what the likeliest path was that led to my failure. And lastly: Seek advice. Other people may have their own misbeliefs, but a discussion can often be sufficient to rid a serious person of his or her most egregious misconceptions.

A key additional point made by Dunning is that recognizing we don’t know something doesn’t have to be seen as a failure but as one more step toward figuring out the truth.

Dunning has noted (Politico) the relevance to Donald Trump and his supporters. But the rest of us must also be concerned, he adds, “about our own naive political opinions that are likely to be more nuanced, subtle, and invisible—but perhaps no less consequential. We all run the risk of being too ill-informed to notice when our own favored candidates or national leaders make catastrophic misjudgments.”

So, in our ongoing contemplation of choices, preferences, and engagement in emotionally charged debates, let’s remember that all of us are Dunning-Kruger-ites at least some of the time. “All I am saying is trust, but verify,” Dunning concludes.

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