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December 11th, 2019
The Dunning-Krugger effect is a phenomenon described in psychology. It’s when a person grossly overestimates their ability to do something. We’ve all seen this in some form or another. Perhaps with a children’s recital where it’s quite understandable and potentially adorable, but also with adults. Chances are, most of us have also been guilty of this delusion at some point. Reality eventually comes knocking and we get a cold hard slap in the face, suddenly we realize we aren’t so talented or skilled.
This phenomenon exists on a sort of coin though, or perhaps a spectrum. There is a symmetrical experience which is perhaps even more pervasive. It’s when you are so aware of your inability that you become paralyzed, and you don’t even make any effort whatsoever. The logic is: what’s the point? It’s not going to result in anything good because I can’t do it. At most I’ll just embarrass myself for trying. As opposed to the Dunning-Kruger which encapsulates an obliviousness to one’s situation, this other experience is the result of being hyper aware of the possibility of falling victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect.
This second experience might seem like a safe bet. And in the short term it is. Comparatively, there’s no risk of embarrassment at all. But in the long term, this switches. Playing it safe in the long term in this way might end up being a total waste of the precious gift of time and life. Nothing could possibly be worse.
Risking embarrassment is a pretty tepid cost for ensuring that one’s life is not wasted.
The thing about the Dunning-Kruger effect, or rather, someone suffering from it, is that they are far more likely to improve because they are putting something out into the world with their expression of ability (or rather inability) and this creates the opportunity to receive honest feedback.
The person who simply remains paralyzed out from fear of embarrassment has far less opportunity for improvement:
How are you supposed to get feedback if you do nothing?
It’s because of this asymmetry that most older people will say that they don’t regret what they did, they only regret what they didn’t try to do. It’s an exercise worth doing. That is, to politely ask people in the later decades of their life if they regret anything. It’s amazing how receptive the older generations are to this question, and 99% of them give that same answer. They wish they’d taken more chances and tried more things.
It’s only by trying something and potentially making a fool of one’s self that we ever develop any abilities whatsoever. Think of an infant trying to make that black and blue leap into toddler-hood. It requires standing and wobbling and falling and stumbling and bruised knees and of course the ego takes a lot of humbling blows during this whole process. But the child slowly learns, and soon enough that kid is scoring goals on ice skates, or flipping skateboards in midair. Could there be any better example of how we can benefit from the Dunning-Kruger effect than an infant who sees adults who effortlessly walk around, and then stands with the bold assumption that they can do the same, and then that kid falls flat on their face? The thing with learning how to walk is that the feedback is instantaneous and it’s ruthless. Gravity is quite honest.
And that’s the key: Honesty. The only real reason that the Dunning-Kruger effect can last for any length of time is because a person deluded in such a way is not getting honest feedback from the people they have around. We fake smile, and clap and say that something was ‘very good’, or perhaps we say euphemistically that it was ‘interesting’, and these less than honest comments create a halo of ignorance around a person. Echo chambers present a very similar concept, and they are maintained in the same way: the delusion festers without fresh input that challenges what we know.
For anyone seeking to get very good at something, this halo of ignorance is a very important problem and part of the learning process. Friends who are confident enough to give honest feedback are beyond valuable if for this reason alone. In essence, such rare people become mirrors for our performance – reflections offering a perspective on our work that is impossible for us to manufacture otherwise, as we are limited to just our one experience.
The lack of such honesty also powers the paralysis of a person who is too fearful to take a chance. It’s one thing to take a chance and receive honest feedback that is difficult to hear. It’s even worse to take a chance and remain the fool because no one is willing to give you an honest picture of how you’re doing.
Both the Dunning-Kruger effect and the corresponding paralysis would disappear if honesty was an ironclad default. Those suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect would be cured of their delusion quickly, and those who are paralyzed could take heed in the fact that any feedback would be honest, and the chance to improve automatically goes up.
But still, we generate these halos of ignorance. We do so, presumably, out of a fear of hurting someone’s feelings. But again, this is short term thinking. Given enough honest effort, a person will eventually discover the truth about how their efforts are perceived, and then what will that person think when they look back and compare that discovery to the things said by family, friends and coworkers?
As individuals we can pull out two principles:
be willing to look foolish by taking chances,
find people who are honest and nuanced in their perspective.