“This meta-ignorance (or ignorance of ignorance) arises because lack of expertise and knowledge often hides in the realm of the “unknown unknowns” or is disguised by erroneous beliefs and background knowledge that only appear to be sufficient to conclude a right answer,” explains David Dunning, co-author of the Dunning-Kruger effect.
The competent underestimate themselves
According to the Dunning-Kruger effect, incompetence breeds confidence. But does it mean competence leads to feeling less confident? In a piece for Pacific Standard, Dunning writes “In many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed withinappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.”
However, the more knowledge we have about a specific topic, the less confident we feel about what we know regarding that topic. We tend to underestimate our knowledge and abilities the more we know about something as we realize that there is a lot more to learn. And this psychological tendency can actually influence our thoughts, emotions, perspective and behavior.
One study showed that women tend to underestimate themselves when competing with men. The research analyzed the performance of women and men in a science quiz and discovered that although women performed as good as men, women believed that they were less knowledgeable in scientific reasoning than their male counterparts. The study also revealed that due to this perception, women usually refused to participate in science competitions.
One of the reasons intelligent people doubt themselves is that “They know how much they don’t know, which dwarfs what they do know,” writes author and HR expert Liz Ryan. She adds “They know that their expertise and their wisdom are only a small part of what makes them who they are. They tend to focus on the experiences and credentials they don’t have, rather than on the ones they do.”
In fact, Dunning himself believes that the true sign of intelligence is being “good at knowing what we don’t know.”
Ignorant doesn’t mean confident idiot
It’s not that those who overestimate their abilities are stupid or lack intelligence. They simply lack the awareness that they are not as skilled as they believe themselves to be. All of us can experience this psychological phenomenon. “The Dunning-Kruger effect is not synonymous with low IQ. As awareness of the term has increased, its misapplication as a synonym for “stupid” has also grown. It is, after all, easy to judge others and believe that such things simply do not apply to you,” explains educational consultant Kendra Cherry, MS.
David Dunning explains “An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge.” He adds “This clutter is an unfortunate by-product of one of our greatest strengths as a species. We are unbridled pattern recognizers and profligate theorizers.”
When we learn to avoid the impact of the Dunning-Kruger effect, we can learn to focus on personal development. And that can only happen when we are aware of our own incompetence about a topic and ignorance about how much we actually know about it. Dunning writes “Because of the way we are built, and because of the way we learn from our environment, we are all engines of misbelief.”
How to avoid the Dunning-Kruger Effect
As all of us are likely to experience the Dunning-Kruger effect in life, understanding ourselves better and learning how the mind works can enable us to rectify the mistakes we are prone to making.
But how can you assess your own knowledge and abilities accurately when you have likely overestimated yourself already? Can you rely on your self-assessment?
Here are a few simple yet effective ways we can avoid falling into the pit of ignorance and experiencing the Dunning-Kruger effect:
1. Learn and study
If you think you have gained expertise about a particular topic, then make sure you learn more about it. Explore the topic in depth and try to figure out what more you need to know about it. This will help you gain additional valuable knowledge and be more focussed.
“Keep learning and practicing. Instead of assuming you know all there is to know about a subject, keep digging deeper. Once you gain greater knowledge of a topic, the more likely you are to recognize how much there is still to learn. This can combat the tendency to assume you’re an expert, even if you’re not,” writes Author Kendra Cherry, MS.
2. Seek advice
You can also avoid this phenomenon by asking for suggestions, feedback and advice from others. You can ask experts, teachers, coaches, colleagues and friends for constructive criticism to help you understand your own blind spots.
Kendra adds “Ask other people how you’re doing. Another effective strategy involves asking others for constructive criticism. While it can sometimes be difficult to hear, such feedback can provide valuable insights into how others perceive your abilities.”