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February 3rd, 2021


The Dunning Kruger Effect is fairly well known, and notorious.  In simple terms it’s the phenomenon that when we lack competence we’re most likely to be overconfident.  Interestingly, it doesn’t apply to total novices.  Someone who has just learned the rules of football does not instantly transform into an armchair quarterback.  People need a little experience in a field before overconfidence starts to set traps of humility.


This Dunning Kruger effect is mostly lambasted as a bad aspect of our species.  The prescription is to be humble, to tread mindfully that there is still much to learn.  And while this is very good advice, it doesn’t do anything to explain why the Dunning Kruger effect occurs in the first place.  If overconfidence were so dangerous and inimical to our well being, wouldn’t this castigated trait been weened out of our psychology millennia ago?  


The answer perhaps lies in another one of our unfortunate traits: the fact that we learn best, and perhaps only through mistakes.  Errors in outcome help us falsify our model of reality.  And unlike the reasons for success, errors can be pinpointed with precision.  Because of this errors form concrete and very practical lessons for how to improve.  Cocktails of success, on the other hand do not reveal their traits.  Parsing the reasons for success is a bit like trying to unscramble an egg, or unshake a cocktail into it’s component spirits. The lessons of success just aren’t as accessible as the lessons of failure.


Now certainly, a humble forward tread will surely be ripe with missteps and mistakes to learn from.  But, overconfidence feeds this progress with rocket fuel.  With overconfidence we run toward our mistakes instead of tip toe toward them.  Certainly a slower tread could perhaps avoid some of these mistakes, but if any real learning is to take place than mistakes are going to happen either way.  A certain book title comes to mind: Move Fast and Break Things.  Unsurprisingly that book is about some of the most successful companies in human history.


Moving fast isn’t ideal since it most likely means making more mistakes, but it’s better than moving too slow to ever cross the finish line.  This might be why overconfidence is such a tendency in the human spirit and mind - we push ourselves faster toward that cold slap of reality…. If indeed it ever comes.  


The big problem regarding the Dunning Kruger effect really has to do with those overconfident people who turn out to be stubbornly immune to the cold hard slap of reality.  If an overconfident person is incapable of being humbled, then they really are set up for mounting disaster.  On the other hand, is overconfidence so much of a problem if an individual is susceptible to being humbled?  Probably not.  It’s only really a problem for other people who get annoyed by unsubstantiated overconfidence.  And while annoying things are certainly unfortunate, is it really that much of an issue that we have to castigate the entire species for this common trait?  Or is such sensitivity to such annoyances perhaps evidence that the real problem is a lot closer to home.  Perhaps instead of huffing and puffing about someone else’s undeserved overconfidence, our attention and effort would be better redirected toward an ability to be at ease with the world no matter how annoying other people seem.  Identifying problems in others may likely identify two problems, the counterintuitive one being that we’re so predisposed to pointing out problems in the first place, especially when it’s a problem like overconfidence which comes with a built in fix.  Perhaps it’s a mistake to be so confident about someone else’s overconfidence being such a problem.


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Podcast Ep. 1025: Confident Problem

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