You do it. I do it … We speak about stuff we don’t know enough about.
From politics and the economy to breaking news and gossip, there is no shortage of topics where people will share their thoughts. Some are in the know. Others are utterly in the dark.
Interestingly, people in this latter group are typically unaware of their ignorance for a simple reason:
You don’t know what you don’t know.
That’s why the smarter you become, the less you will say. Intelligent people only speak of topics within their circle of competence. They listen more and study more. And they stay off Mount Stupid, which we will get back to later.
Silence makes you think. We could all benefit from more quiet time to think and listen before joining the rest of the noisy world. As you will soon discover, we ought to be very humble about how little we know.
These are just some of the reasons why you need to understand the Dunning-Kruger effect.
What is the Dunning-Kruger Effect?
The Dunning-Kruger Effect is when less skilled people overestimate their abilities. Conversely, people with better than average skills tend to underestimate their capabilities.
Professors David Dunning and Justin Kruger observed how the least skilled students at their university tended to overestimate their knowledge and skills. Ironically, what these students lacked in insights, they made up for in overconfidence. Dunning and Kruger decided to test this paradox of knowledge illusion.
Today, the Dunning-Kruger Effect is on the long list of cognitive biases.
The Dunning-Kruger effect and our illusion of knowledge
Since you’re not going to like this next part anyway, I’ll just put it bluntly.
You’re probably ignorant about most things that you think you know. I’m sorry if I’m the first one to tell you. You probably know how to find most information, but the knowledge stored inside your skull is pretty limited.
Not convinced (and pissed off)?
Let’s do a small test together.
Explain in simple terms how these everyday things work:
- A battery
- A refrigerator
- The internet
- A toilet
- The zipper on your jacket.
Not that easy, right? We think we know how things work – just until we have to explain them. Then, we find the gaps in our ability.
Sure, the world keeps turning even if you don’t know how your beers stay cold in the fridge. But it gets much worse than that. Think of the public debate on more critical, complex matters.
Social media feeds are full of (ignorant) people debating other (foolish) guys and gals about big questions like:
- How much should we pay in tax?
- How much immigration is good for society?
- How should we finance healthcare?
People have an opinion about these matters. But what do they know?
The Dunning-Kruger Effect describes our illusion of knowledge.
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”Albert Einstein
Partaking in these discussions of complex matters comes with a warning from our good friends, David Dunning and Justin Kruger. The least competent are usually the loudest and most confident in their abilities.
A healthy sign of intelligence might be the ones who avoid these debates altogether. Or simply utter these three words more often:
Move on quickly from Mount Stupid
Mount Stupid describes the “peak” where people are very confident in their understanding of a subject in which they have little knowledge. In other words, this is the spot where the most ignorant are the least aware of their shortcomings.
Let’s take a short, guided tour of Mount Stupid with a guy called Steve. Feel free to sympathize with our imaginary friend.
At the bottom left of the curve, competence and confidence of a given subject are zero. Here, Steve goes, “huh?”
As Steve starts to learn just a little bit about any subject, say pick up a few things in a news article, confidence grows substantially. What an epiphany! With only a little understanding, Steve’s confidence skyrockets. Convinced to be among the few that understand the subject, he has found the self-evident truths: “I know everything!” thinks Steve.
Unfortunately, Steve is now standing at the very peak of Mount Stupid. He starts sharing his newfound ‘wisdom’ on Facebook, debating with all the uninitiated who just doesn’t get it.
From the Valley of Despair to the Slope of Enlightenment
Over the next months, Steve decides, thankfully, to read a book on the subject. Slowly, he starts to realize how complicated it is. As you can see on the curve above, confidence dips sharply after the peak of Mount Stupid. With rapid speed and disillusion, Steve descends from “I know everything” to “There is more to this than I thought” ending at “I’m too stupid to understand it.”
Eventually, Steve descends to the bottom, also known as the Valley of Despair. Almost as if he is back to ground zero. Steve has better than average knowledge now, but this only makes him recognize the many things he still doesn’t know. But Steve keeps pushing. He slowly climbs from the Valley of Despair onto the Slope of Enlightenment.
Finally, Steve regains confidence and mastery of the subject. Things make sense.
The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.Bertrand Russell
In the bestseller, Thinking, Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman introduces WYSIATI – What You See Is All There Is.
WYSIATI is the fact that we make judgments and decisions based on the knowledge and evidence we have available. Our minds go on to create an incomplete truth. We seldom spend time thinking about all the things we don’t know. Instead, we just stick to what we know because we’re lazy thinkers.
Our lazy brain likes stories. This includes rumors, gossip, and fake news. Good stories make it easier to remember things.
If our brain has a reasonably coherent story, it’s ready to hit retweet. The story doesn’t have to be accurate, complete, or fact-checked. Obviously, this poses a huge problem. Especially, when we fail to ask questions before deciding to believe in something.
You’re better off without opinions
The human brain creates endless opinions based on limited information. Opinions shoot out like confetti.
Recently, I found myself in a heated argument about market conditions. Afterward, I found quite a few holes in my knowledge. It’s embarrassing when you think about it.
We don’t take the time to study something in-depth and give quick answers to complex questions. Should the minimum wage be increased? When is the next stock market crash? How should your country have dealt with Covid-19?
Sometimes, we even express opinions on matters we don’t care about. But it’s easy to pick a side in an argument and justify later.
You can’t think through complex matters. It takes days, weeks, or months. So, you take shortcuts when you come up with answers. “What did that news headline say?” or “My buddy just told me about this thing.“
We’re not independent thinkers. Most of our knowledge originates from the collective pool, which we cannot always trust.
How to avoid Mount Stupid
Here are a few ways to avoid falling victim to the Dunning-Kruger Effect and how to have a much better chance to stay off Mount Stupid.
Watching the news teaches you zilch about the world. News media is often misleading and superficial. Quit the news. Read a book and study something in-depth on your terms. Think more independently and be very critical of the sources you go to for information.
Speak less and ask more questions. Whenever you get overconfident of an idea or opinion, look for the counterarguments. It’s an excellent way to slow things down and avoid jumping to conclusions. Save yourself some face.
Never mistake authority for expertise. Politicians and famous people can speak for hours about stuff they don’t know, like Donald Trump dishing out medical advice. It doesn’t matter that he presents his convictions very confidently.
Opinion or knowledge? Ask yourself, did you think it through, or do you just have a strong view? Accept that you are no expert in almost anything. But do study something in-depth and try to master it.
Write. Want to know about something and truly understand it? Write it out. Writing will force you to think slowly, and you can read out very clearly if you get it or not.
The “too complicated” bucket. Build a mental bucket with a sign on saying “too complicated.” Just say, “I don’t know” next time you face a difficult question. Not always participating, and not feeling like you need an opinion on everything will take a lot of pressure off you and makes you more relaxed. People will respect that you don’t have an answer ready for everything.