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7 Lessons About Human Ignorance From David Dunning's Reddit AMA

How to avoid overconfidence and recognize your own incompetence—from Dr. David Dunning himself.

In our November/December cover story, "We Are All Confident Idiots," Dr. David Dunning (of Dunning-Kruger Effect fame) made a compelling case for why humans are so oblivious to their own ignorance—the incompetent don't even know enough to recognize their own incompetence. It seems to have struck a chord among our readers: There were plenty of Facebook comments, some not-so-subtle subtweets ("You might want to read this..."), as well as a lively discussion at Hacker News. After all, who hasn't experienced the overwhelming compulsion to scrounge up a fake opinion on an unfamiliar topic?

Yesterday, Dunning hosted a Reddit AMA to discuss his article and his latest research on competence, moral character, and self-deception. In his own words: "I ask how close people’s perceptions of themselves adhere to the reality of who they are. The general answer is: not that close." Redditors seemed eager to learn more about ignorance—the post garnered almost 4,000 upvotes and 1,400 comments as of this morning. But don't feel overwhelmed, we've gathered up these lessons to share with you:

1. By definition, you can't know when you're a victim of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Even Dunning himself says he is susceptible to the biases that he researches: "Self-deception means you have no awareness that you are authoring a belief mostly because it is congenial to you and your beliefs.... Thus, the trick is not to catch one’s self in the error, but to avoid the error in the first place."

2. To avoid the errors, it takes a village. "My take is that the royal road to whether you are on the right track runs through other people," Dunning says. "Do get feedback from others, and listen if it is constructive." He mentions that common cognitive errors are jumping to conclusions, rejecting advice, and refusing to reconsider initial opinions. Are some people more susceptible than others? Dunning's response: "If you ask me what single characteristic makes a person prone to self-deception and motivated reasoning, I would say that they are breathing."

3. Confident idiots aren't really the "fake it 'til you make it" types. The Dunning-Kruger Effect is prematurely thinking you've made it, whereas the fakers know they're not yet competent. Can confidence help the fakers finally make it? "If confidence prompts a person to work harder, learn new things, and become more competent, terrific," Dunning says. "But I’ve seen premature confidence cause people to become complacent ... and thus stay stuck at a level of performance that is beneath what they can do."

4. We're not sure if the Dunning-Kruger Effect is the same in different parts of the world. Heads up, researchers. Dunning says, "I've been waiting for someone in the cross-cultural community to take up the project on this because it's a clear question that would lead to an obvious publication." Based on available research, he says, "There are cross-cultural differences in how much people over-rate themselves relative to reality. In North America and Europe, it's rather pervasive. (In fact, a recent study this year found that convicted criminals in the UK rated themselves as more moral than the average Britisher.)"

5. There's nothing inherently wrong with overconfidence. It depends on the situation. "A general on the day of battle needs to be confident so that his or her troops execute the battle plan with efficiency," Dunning says. "Doing so saves lives. However, before that day, I want a cautious general who over-plans—one who wants more troops, more ordnance, better contingency plans—so that he or she is best prepared for the day of battle. Who wants an overconfident general who underestimates the number of troops and ordnance he or she will need to prevail?"

6. Not only do the incompetent overestimate themselves, high performers can sometimes underestimate themselves. Redditors point out that this is sometimes known as impostor syndrome. As Dunning notes, "Part of the original DKE framework in our 1999 paper suggested that high performers underestimate themselves, but in a particular way. In an objective sense, they get just how well they are doing. But, they assume that other people are also doing well, too. Thus, high performers think they are nothing special relative to everyone else. (And this can aid 'impostor' feelings that high performers sometimes express and that have been noted in the comments here.)"

7. Dunning had nothing to do with naming the Dunning-Kruger Effect. In response to Redditor Aui_2000's question, he writes, "Oh, and how did I get top billing in the naming of the effect? Dunno. It does show that Justin Kruger and I did not provide the name. We don’t know how it happened, we just know that our good family names will be associated with ignorance, incompetence, foolishness, and the like far after we leave this mortal coil."

There's a lot more to peruse, including discussions of lion hunting and fighter pilot training. Take a look and learn something—but don't assume you've learned enough to be an expert.