Day 153: the Dunning-Kruger Effect

A friend of mine is struggling with his Master’s. His problem is he keeps running into more stuff he needs to know. So he can’t get down to writing. Each time he starts to work, he realizes he’s making reference to something he doesn’t know enough about. So he researches that. And this reminded me of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Or at least I thought it did.

See, the way I thought it worked was a corollary: dumb people learn a little about something and think they know a lot. Smart people learn a lot about something and realize there’s a lot more to know.

And this paralysis comes from knowing there’s a lot left to learn.

But I was wrong.

It turns out there’s more to it than that. The corollary also involves people of high ability not understanding why people with lower ability don’t find things easy. In other words, it’s kind of why skilled people are sometimes dicks.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect and my goals are linked.

So first of all, I knew a little about the Dunning-Kruger effect and thought I knew a lot. Which is straight up ironic.

Secondly, it’s interesting to take this principle and apply it to things in the self-improvement realm. If there’s a field of thought where people learn very little and assume they know a lot, it’s this one. The “science” of habits springs to mind. It’s a crazy area of badly summarized and poorly understood science that turns into buckets of hogwash. “Research” often comes down to hand-wavey “I do ‘street science’ and rely on my own observations,” which is… well, that’s not research. Or at least it’s research in the Grade Three science project “I fed hot dogs and hamburgers to my dog and all dogs prefer hamburgers” sort of way. I’ve gotten value from the writing, because the observations ring true, but it ain’t science, folks.

It’s not a bad test to apply to things you run across in life. It’s a healthy form of skepticism: don’t doubt the person’s intentions, or even that they think they know what they’re talking about. But probe: do they actually know a lot? Or do they know a little, and they’re transposing this into ‘expertise’?