Reader Feedback: Are We All Confident Idiots?

Author and social psychologist David Dunning spent an afternoon answering questions about his cover story on an Ask Me Anything session at Reddit.
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Author and social psychologist David Dunning spent an afternoon answering questions about his cover story on an Ask Me Anything session at Reddit. A few (edited) highlights:

Professor Amy Cuddy and self-help speaker Tony Robbins advocate the ‘Fake it till you make it’ approach. How does that tie in with the Dunning-Kruger Effect? Do we become more competent with confidence?

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is about prematurely thinking you’ve made it, but there are some connections. Often, people new to a task do think they are impostors or not up to the task. And in a manner of speaking, they are the stand-in until their more experienced and skilled self arrives. We are all simply “green” when it comes to new tasks and there’s nothing wrong with that. But does being confident make that more competent person arrive sooner? It can help us withstand some mistakes to learn the lessons we need to learn. If confidence prompts a person to work harder, learn new things, and become more competent, terrific. 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.

Was this study done in other countries?

No explicit Dunning-Kruger Effect studies have been published that compare countries or cultures. We do know from other people’s work (and one publication in our lab) that there are cross-cultural differences in how much people overrate themselves relative to reality. In North America and Europe, it’s rather pervasive. A recent study found that convicted criminals in the U.K. rated themselves as more moral than the average Britisher. But in other areas, such as Japan and the Far East, one does not find this overrating. My speculation is that negative feedback when you perform poorly is more prevalent and honest in these other cultures, and that’s a hypothesis I would like to test.

I’m a professional video game player and I am trying to start teaching people about a game where mistakes have the potential to ultimately lose the game for your team. The Dunning-Kruger Effect is cited extensively as one of the reasons for why it is hard for people to improve, as well as one of the reasons for poor team cohesion. Are there ways to turn Dunning-Kruger into a positive force for learning?

The same issue comes up, with potentially severe consequences, in flight training of new pilots. New pilots are appropriately scared of the task. But, after a little training, they become more experienced and dangerous because they haven’t confronted all the problems they might yet. How do you expose trainee pilots to knowledge of the Dunning-Kruger Effect without putting their lives in danger? One notion is to let beginners know just how much better other pilots are performing. That clues them in that there’s a level of proficiency that they are not at yet.

Dunning’s story also provoked long back-and-forth conversations at sites like Y Combinator’s Hacker News, Slashdot, and Reddit. Some highlights:

At Reddit, mflood posts: “It occurs to me that although I intellectually outclass a lot of people, there are plenty of people out there who outclass me by just as large a margin. What gives me the right to vote? I understand how budgets work, but do I really understand the nuances of federal cashflow? Am I fully up to date on the latest economic theory? Have I done exhaustive candidate research to be sure I really know the people I’m voting for? ... No. My moderately informed opinion may be just as wrong as someone else’s ignorant opinion. It seems like stupid people shouldn’t be making important decisions for our nation, but I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t be making them, either. And yet we’re both allowed to do exactly that. But it seems to have (more or less) worked out OK, so I’ll show up [to vote] and do my part right along with the morons, the geniuses.”

And jporch writes: “I shudder to think what parts of my own financial understanding are just assumptions that I make while thinking they’re definitive facts, because I know that there have to be plenty of them.”

From shadowrat at Slashdot: “I find after 15 years on the job, I spend a lot more time worrying about the things I’m not thinking of. I was a lot more productive in my youth when I just blindly charged ahead, applying whatever pattern-du-jour to everything.”

At Hacker News, atmosx posts: “Act 5, Scene 1, As You Like It, Shakespeare: ‘The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.’ I try to keep that quote in mind at all times. I believe it holds a great deal of wisdom, especially for me, for I am loud and opinionated.”

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