YANSS Podcast 036 – Why We Are Unaware that We Lack the Skill to Tell How Unskilled and Unaware We Are

The Topic: The Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Guest: David Dunning

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

A scene from NBC's "The Office"

A scene from NBC’s “The Office”

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Here’s a fun word to add to your vocabulary: nescience. I ran across it a few months back and kind of fell in love with it.

It’s related to the word prescience, which is a kind of knowing. Prescience is a state of mind, an awareness, that grants you knowledge of the future – about something that has yet to happen or is not yet in existence. It’s a strange idea isn’t it, that knowledge is a thing, a possession, that it stands alone and in proxy for something else out there in reality that has yet to actually…be? Then, the time comes, and the knowledge is no longer alone. Foreknowledge becomes knowledge and now corresponds to a real thing that is true. It is no longer pre-science but just science.

I first learned the word nescience from the book Ignorance and Surprise by Matthias Gross. That book revealed to me that, philosophically speaking, ignorance is a complicated matter. You can describe it in many ways. In that book Gross talks about the difficulties of translating a sociologist named Georg Simmel who often used the word “nichtwissen” in his writing. Gross says that some translations changed that word to nescience and some just replaced it with “not knowing.” It’s a difficult term to translate, he explains, because it can mean a few different things. If you stick to the Latin ins and outs of the word, nescience means non-knowledge, or what we would probably just call ignorance. But Gross writes that in some circles it has a special meaning. He says it can mean something you can’t know in advance, or an unknown unknown, or something that no human being can ever hope to know, something a theologian might express as a thought in the mind of God. For some people, as Gross points out, everything is in the mind of God, so therefore nothing is actually knowable. To those people nescience is the natural state of all creatures and nothing can ever truly be known, not for sure. Like I said, ignorance is a complex concept.

It’s that last meaning of nescience that I think is most fun. Take away the religious aspect and nescience is prescience in negative. It is the state of not knowing, but stronger than that. It’s not knowing something that can’t be known. It’s not even knowing that you can’t know it. For instance, your cat can never read or understand the latest terms and conditions for iTunes, thus if she clicked on “I Agree,” we wouldn’t consider that binding. There are vast expanses of ignorance that your cat can’t even imagine, much less gain the knowledge about those things required to rid herself of that ignorance. That’s the definition of nescience I prefer.

I love this word, because once you accept this definition you start to wonder about a few things. Are there some things that, just like my cat, I can never know that I can never know? Are there things that maybe no one can ever know that no one can ever know? It’s a fun, frustrating, dorm-room-bong-hit-whoa-dude loop of weirdness that real philosophers and sociologists seriously ponder and continue to write about in books you can buy on Amazon.

I think I like this idea because I often look back at my former self and imagine what sort of advice I would offer that person. It seems like I’m always in a position to do that, no matter how old I am or how old the former me is in my imagination. I was always more ignorant than I am now, even though I didn’t feel all that ignorant then. That means that it’s probably also true that right now I’m sitting here in a state of total ignorance concerning things that my future self wishes he could shout back at me through time. Yet here I sit, unaware. Nescient.

The evidence gathered so far by psychologists and neuroscientists seems to suggest that each one of us has a relationship with our own ignorance, a dishonest, complicated relationship, and that dishonesty keeps us sane, happy, and willing to get out of bed in the morning. Part of that ignorance is a blind spot we each possess that obscures both our competence and incompetence.

Psychologists David Dunning and Joyce Ehrlinger once conducted an experiment investigating how bad people are at judging their own competence. Specifically, they were interested in people’s self-assessment of a single performance. They wrote in the study that they already knew from previous research that people seemed to be especially prone to making mistakes when they judged the accuracy of their own perceptions if those perceptions were of themselves and not others. To investigate why, they created a ruse.

In the study, Dunning and Ehrlinger describe how they gathered college students together who agreed to take a test. All the participants took the exact same test – same font, same order, same words, everything – but the scientists told one group that it was a test that measured abstract reasoning ability. They told another group it measured computer programming ability. Two groups of people took the same exam, but each batch of subjects believed it was measuring something unique to that group. When asked to evaluate their own performances, the people who believed they had taken a test that measured reasoning skills reported back that they felt they did really well. The other group, however, the ones who believed they had taken a test that measured computer programming prowess, weren’t so sure. They guessed that they did much poorer on the test than did the other group – even though they took the same test. The real results actually showed both groups did about the same. The only difference was how they judged their own performances. The scientists said that it seemed as though the subjects weren’t truly judging how well they had done based on any ease or difficulty they may have experienced during the test itself, but they were inferring how well they had performed based on the kind of people they believed themselves to be.

Dunning and Ehrlinger knew that most college students tend to hold very high opinions of themselves when it comes to abstract reasoning. It’s part of what they call a “chronic self view.” You have an idea of who you are in your mind, and it is kind of like a character in a story, the protagonist in the tale of your life. Some aspects of that character are chronic, traits that are always there that you feel are essential and evident, beliefs about your level of skill that are consistent across all situations. For most college students, being great at abstract reasoning is one of those traits, but being great at computer programming is not.

Dunning and Ehrlinger write that the way you view your past performances can greatly affect your future decisions, behaviors, judgments, and choices. They bring up the example of a first date. How you judge your contribution to the experience might motivate you to keep calling someone who doesn’t want to ever see you again, or it might cause you to miss out on something wonderful because you mistakenly think the other person hated every minute of the night. In every aspect of our lives, they write, we are evaluating how well we performed and using that analysis to decide when to continue and when to quit, when to try harder and work longer and when we can sit back and rest because everything is going just fine. Yet, the problem with this is that we are really, really bad at this kind of analysis. We are nescient. The reality of our own abilities, the level of our own skills, both when lacking and when excelling, is often something we don’t know that we don’t know.

Dunning and Ehrlinger put it like this, “In general, the perceptions people hold, of either their overall ability or specific performance, tend to be correlated only modestly with their actual performance.” We must manage our own ignorance when reflecting on any performance – a test, an athletic event, a speech, or even a conversation. Whether modest or confident, you often depend on the image you maintain of yourself as a guide for how well you did more than actual feedback. To make matters worse, you often don’t get any feedback, or you get a bad version of it.

In the case of singing, you might get all the way to an audition on X-Factor on national television before someone finally provides you with an accurate appraisal. Dunning says that the shock that some people feel when Simon Cowell cruelly explains to them that they suck is often the result of living for years in an environment filled with mediocrity enablers. Friends and family, peers and coworkers, they don’t want to be mean or impolite. They encourage you to keep going until you end up in front of millions reeling from your first experience with honest feedback.

David DunningWhen you are unskilled yet unaware, you often experience what is now known in psychology as the Dunning-Kruger effect, a psychological phenomenon that arises sometimes in your life because you are generally very bad at self-assessment. If you have ever been confronted with the fact that you were in over your head, or that you had no idea what you were doing, or that you thought you were more skilled at something than you actually were – then you may have experienced this effect. It is very easy to be both unskilled and unaware of it, and in this episode we explore why that is with professor David Dunning, one of the researchers who coined the term and a scientist who continues to add to our understanding of the phenomenon.

Read more about the Dunning-Kruger effect from David Dunning himself in this article recently published in the Pacific Standard.

After the interview, I discuss a news story about how people overestimate how awesome they look when bragging and underestimate how much people hate hearing you toot your own horn.

In every episode, before I read a bit of self delusion news, I taste a cookie baked from a recipe sent in by a listener/reader. That listener/reader wins a signed copy of my new book, “You Are Now Less Dumb,” and I post the recipe on the YANSS Pinterest page. This episode’s winner is Janelle Robichaud who submitted a recipe for sunshine cookies. Send your own recipes to david {at} youarenotsosmart.com.

Sunshine CookiesLinks and Sources

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Previous Episodes

Boing Boing Podcasts

Cookie Recipes

David Dunning

We Are All Confident Idiots

Scientific Evidence That Self-Promoters Underestimate How Annoying They Are

20 Minutes of X-Factor Auditions

Ignorance and Surprise

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YANSS Podcast 033 – The psychology of forming, keeping, and sometimes changing our beliefs

The Topic: Belief

The Guests: Will Storr, Margaret Maitland, and Jim Alcock

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

Pizza Hut Pyramids

This episode brought to you by Squarespace. For a free trial and 10% off enter offer code LESSDUMB at checkout.

And by The Great Courses. Order Behavioral Economics and get 80% off the original price.

Put your right hand on your head. Unless you are near a mirror, you can no longer see your hand, but you know where it is, right? You know what position it is in. You know how far away it is from most of the other things around you. I’m using the word “know,” but that’s just for convenience, because you don’t actually know those things. That is, you can’t be 100 percent certain your hand is on your head. You assume it is, and that’s as good as it is going to get – a best guess. We’ll come back to that. You can put your hand down now.

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YANSS Podcast 26 – Maslow’s Hammer

The Topic: Maslow’s Hammer

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

Photo by Michael Jastremski – Original here: http://bit.ly/1iqqkjs

Take the YANSS Podcast survey, win a $100 Amazon Gift Card: http://www.podsurvey.com/yanss

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

You’ve heard the expression before. You’ve may have, like myself, smugly used it a few times to feel like you made an intelligent point in an office conversation. It’s one of those great comebacks that we’ve decided is ok to use in professional settings like congressional debates and televised political arguments about everything from gun control to foreign policy. But, it might surprise you to learn who wrote it, how young the above quote is, and why it was written in the first place.

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YANSS Podcast 015 – I read an excerpt from You Are Now Less Dumb

The Topic: Narrative Bias

The Episode: Download – iTunes – Stitcher – RSS – Soundcloud

The Ypsilanti State Hospital - Photo Courtesy of Opacity.Us

The Ypsilanti State Hospital – Photo Courtesy of Opacity.Us

In this inbetweenisode I read an excerpt from my book, You Are Now Less Dumb, about a strange experiment in Michigan that tested the bounds of the self by throwing three very unusual men into a situation that won’t likely be repeated ever again by science.

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YANSS Podcast 11 – Hazel Markus and The Influence of Where You Live on How You Think

The Topic: Culture

The Guest: Hazel Rose Markus

The Episode: Download – iTunes – Stitcher – RSS – Soundcloud

Tombstone Honor Latin

Is your state of mind from one situation to the next drastically altered by the state in which you live? According to cultural psychologists, yes it is.

Studies show that your thoughts, perceptions, emotions, and behaviors in response to a particular setting will reliably differ from those of others in that same setting depending on where you spent your childhood or even where you spent six years or more of your adult life.

On this episode of the You Are Not So Smart podcast, we explore cultural cognition and the psychological effects of the region you call home on the brain you call yours.

My guest this week:

Hazel Rose MarkusHazel Rose Markus is a social psychologist at Stanford University who studies the effects of culture, class, ethnicity, region, society, and gender on the concept of self and human psychology in general. She is the author of “Clash! Eight Cultural Conflicts that Make Us Who We Are.” You can learn more about her at her website here.

After the interview I try out a cinnamon chocolate cookie and read a bit of psychology news about how reading good books can make you more adept at reading faces.

In every episode, I read a bit of self delusion news and taste a cookie baked from a recipe sent in by a listener/reader. That listener/reader wins a signed copy of my new book, “You Are Now Less Dumb,” and I post the recipe on the YANSS Pinterest page. This episode’s winner is Tamar Levanoni who submitted a recipe for cinnamon chocolate cookies. Send your own recipes to david {at} youarenotsosmart.com.

Nov6Cookies

Links and Sources:

Download – iTunes – Stitcher – RSS – Soundcloud

Boing Boing Podcasts

The Website of Hazel Markus

Clash! Eight Cultural Conflicts that Make Us Who We Are

Tombstone Latin

The Southern Hallway Bump Study

The Good Books and Empathy Study

YANSS Podcast – Episode Eight – The Psychology of Video Games

The Topic: Video Games

The Guest: Jamie Madigan

The Episode: Download – iTunes – Stitcher – RSS – Soundcloud

Last of Us Friend or Foe

A scene from “The Last of Us”

“The Last of Us” is a video game, a work of interactive art, and a question will arise in the back of your mind while playing, “What would I do in this situation?” and the answer will make you feel emotions no other art form can elicit.

The game is set in a post-apocalyptic United States, 20 years after the fall of mankind, in a world nature has mostly reclaimed, where resources are few and trust is scarce. Hope is the commodity in shortest supply. Most everyone has given up on rebuilding the old world. This is just how it is now. Every encounter with strangers pings that most primal of judgments under uncertainty: “Is this a potential friend or foe?”

Familiar? Sure, it’s a theme being explored all over in fiction. Something in the zeitgeist has us fretting over these things again, but in a game you have the opportunity to actually test yourself in a virtual reality, to see what you would do when the stakes are as high as possible. Would you trust others? Would you help strangers? Would you kill to survive?

In addition, “The Last of Us” explores something the gaming world calls ludonarrative dissonance. Many modern games have detailed stories with great writing and well-acted scenes interspersed between what amounts to bursts of mass murder. It can make a player feel like his or her agency in the world has been stolen by the storyteller, that the characters you are asked to portray live in two realities, one you control and one you do not. This can feel really off-putting when the characters are jaunty, smarmy, and noble in the cutscenes, but then you are asked to use those people to do terrible things. In an effort to solve this problem, Naughty Dog, the developers of “The Last of Us”, crafted an experience where you and the character feel justified when pushed to do harm, but afterward you, the gamer, feel disgusted with yourself and horrified by the power of the situation to change your behavior and shift your moral center. You find yourself quickly learning to avoid violence – a behavior I was astonished to see evoked in myself inside a game world, and was thrilled to experience. That’s something you won’t get watching “Breaking Bad.”

Watch a teaser trailer showing a friend-or-foe scenario here: Link

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In this episode of the YANSS podcast, we explore games and their potential to reveal our self delusions. I interview Jamie Madigan, the curator of psychologyofgames.com, who writes about the behaviors and cognitions that games both exploit and uncover. It’s a great interview. We discuss everything from the motivational nudging in “Candy Crush Saga” to the power of endowed progress when endorsing people on LinkedIn. Please forgive us for geeking out so hard during it. I promise, non-gamers will learn plenty in this episode. Links to the things mentioned in the episode are at the bottom of this post.

After the interview, as in every episode, I read a bit of self delusion news and taste a cookie baked from a recipe sent in by a listener/reader. That listener/reader wins a signed copy of the new book, You Are Now Less Dumb, and I post the recipe on the YANSS Pinterest page. This episode’s winner is Violet Sinnarkar who submitted a recipe for white chocolate oatmeal cookies. Send your own recipes to david {at} youarenotsosmart.com.

Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 12.51.51 PM

White Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies

Links:

Download – iTunes – Stitcher – RSS – Soundcloud

Boing Boing Podcasts

Psychology of Games

Papers, Please

Spent

Newsgaming

Underground Railroad Game

The Walking Dead 

Narco Guerilla 

The Last of Us

Candy Crush Youtube Video 1

Candy Crush Youtube Video 2

Candy Crush Youtube Video 3

Candy Crush Youtube Video 4

The study concerning the cognitive load of poverty

YANSS Podcast – Episode Four – The Self Illusion

The Topic: The Self

The Guest: Bruce Hood

The Episode: Download - iTunes - Stitcher - RSS - Soundcloud

Russian Dwarf Hamster – Photo by cdrussorusso

You are a pile of atoms.

When you eat vanilla pudding, which is also a pile of atoms, you are really just putting those atoms next to your atoms and waiting for some of them trade places.

If things had turned out differently back when your mom had that second glass of wine while your dad told that story about when he sat on a jellyfish while skinny dipping, the same atoms that glommed together to make your bones and your skin, your tongue and your brain could have been been rearranged to make other things. Carbon, oxygen, hydrogen – the whole collection of elements that make up your body right down to the vanadium, molybdenum and arsenic could be popped off of you, collected, and reused to make something else – if such a seemingly impossible technology existed.

Like a cosmic box of Legos, the building blocks of matter can take the shape of every form we know of from mountains to monkeys.

If you think about this long enough, you might stumble into the same odd questions scientists and philosophers ask from time to time. If we had an atom-exchanging machine, and traded one atom at a time from your body with an atom from the body of Edward James Olmos, at what point would you cease to be you and Olmos cease to be Edward James? During that process, would you lose your mind and gain his? At some point would each person’s thoughts and dreams and memories change hands?

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