- The Dunning-Kruger effect and impostor syndrome work together to make humans very terrible at accurately and objectively evaluating themselves.
- Knowing about these issues can paradoxically only worsen the problem by making us feel artificially smarter and more confident.
- People generally don't need to be perfectly skilled or knowledgeable to get by - they just need some basic level of competence plus a lot of confidence. Luckily, confidence is a learned ability that can be practiced over time.
- No one really knows what they're doing. Focus instead on just knowing enough to be confident.
- ~900 words, about a 4-6 minute read.
You may have heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect. This cognitive bias is a kind of bias in which everyone always seems to think that they’re just a little bit above average at everything. Clearly, this can’t be true: because the reality is that some people are just better or worse than others.
When we examine populations for their ability, we tend to see a bell curve ("normal distribution") shape. In the bell curve, most people are pretty average (forming a large hill or “bell” in the center of a graph) while a few outliers are either particularly good or particularly bad. Outliers are judged by their being "standard deviations" away from the norm - essentially, how far you are away from the average. This is an oversimplification, but it gives us a rough idea of how to think about ability, whether it be athletic, intellectual, or job-oriented. This is the way that scientific studies tend to do so.
There’s an interesting opposite end to the Dunning-Kruger effect - which is that people of above-average talent actually tend to think of themselves as less skilled than they actually are. This is a psychological bias that we call “impostor syndrome” - essentially, the belief that we’re never good enough, no matter how objectively talented we really are, and that everyone around us is smarter and more talented than we are.
There’s another interesting effect: knowing about the Dunning-Kruger effect… doesn’t necessarily change anything. The less talented people might see that and think “ah, I must actually be one of the talented ones, I should stop being so hard on myself!” while the more talented people might think “ah, I was probably one of the less talented ones all along”. This creates a kind of backfire effect or confirmation bias, which tells you exactly what you already wanted to hear.
So paradoxically, knowledge of the Dunning-Kruger effect can only serve to further heighten the effect. This is the exact case in a recent Ask A Manager post, in which an incompetent coworker alternately cries about impostor syndrome and then uses Dunning-Kruger to justify thinking that she’s being too hard on herself, all the while being objectively bad at her job.
I think we’re all really bad at estimating how good or bad we are at our jobs, our hobbies, and more. Psychologically, we have a bias towards always representing ourselves well. If we’re depressed or otherwise out of sorts, the opposite tendency kicks in and we always represent ourselves poorly. In normal life, the two don't really meet in the center.
The best solution for this is simply to have real, objective outsiders to tell us what they think. Of course, this is a lot easier said than done. Most of the people you’ll interact with on a day-to-day basis are friends or coworkers who have an interest in making you feel good so that you’re not messing your day (or theirs).
A random person on the street isn’t likely to know anything about you, so they can’t really evaluate you effectively. What this means is that you have to find someone you know who’s either particularly, brutally honest (a rare trait, given how rude this is) or who’s just far enough from you that they’re not emotionally invested in you while still knowing enough about you to accurately assess your situation.
This can happen with bosses or coworkers. They have a vested interest in seeing you do good work for the sake of your job or company, so they’re probably more likely to be willing to call you out on your flaws and mistakes. But of course, even this isn’t a given.
It’s also important to remember that this doesn’t just apply to our jobs. It also applies to our attempts at self-improvement, taking up exercise, and more.
I can’t tell you how many clients are initially terrified of using the gym. They’re afraid that they’ll look bad, or make some minor mistake and become the next “gym fails” victim, filmed to be mocked on social media. We’re all acutely aware that the gym is a very public place where people can watch us and judge our every action. This turns into a self-reinforcing impostor syndrome in which it can be very hard to get started for fear of being publicly shamed.
At the same time, I can’t tell you how many teenage dudes go into the gym, rock some terrible workout plan, make a ton of mistakes, but also feel supremely confident in themselves and are always glad to come back and give it another try. They’re immune to criticism, no matter how dumb they look, because they’re convinced that they are doing well - they’re on the other end of that Dunning-Kruger effect.
Meanwhile, a lot of fitness personalities on YouTube, Instagram, and more just make their living by having decent genetics, having some small level of knowledge about how to train, and then blatantly goofing around and showing off with dumb and silly exercises. Bench pressing while leg pressing is a stupid as hell move that would normally get you mocked, but it's the exact kind of thing that jacked dudes do on Instagram for clicks and views.
One thing that I will say is that (good) practice (usually) makes perfect. Chances are that you don’t start out with much confidence, but confidence is a skill that you can learn just like any other. I sure as hell was awkward and unconfident when I started working out, but with over a decade of experience under my belt, I’ve convinced myself that I know what I’m doing. I may not know everything there is to know about exercise science, but I know enough to be confident.
That’s ultimately the lesson for today: that no one really knows what they’re doing.
People know just enough to do what they need to do, and practice to gain the confidence that they need to follow through. In the process of practicing, you’ll slowly gain more knowledge and confidence until you really are a master - but of course, that’s not a judgment that you can make for yourself.
Be careful when making judgments about your own level of ability, and instead just focus on regular, consistent improvement and practice in whatever you're doing. Learn to be confident even when you know that you don't know everything.
If you're interested in learning a lot more about cognitive biases, and what makes us tick, I recommend picking up Smarter and Wiser from my Better series - these books are focused on helping you understand cognitive biases, logical fallacies, and other tips and tricks you can use to maximize your intellectual pursuits.
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