This is the interview with David Dunning from episode 036 of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast.
When 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.
David: Okay David, it feels like – if there is anything that I know about in this world, it’s my own self. Like, who I am, what I am and what I am not capable of. How I compare to others, and so on. What does your research tell us about the image that we have of ourselves, and of our skills and our talents?
David D: Well, what our research suggests, is that – of course the Greeks said that knowing thyself was one of the most important tasks that you could ever do in life. But our work suggests that this is one of the most intrinsically difficult tasks to do. That is, left to your own devices, without the help of other people – we’re just not in a position really to know ourselves. We live in a world that gives us misinformation, or doesn’t give us crucial information. Knowing thyself is an intrinsically difficult task. I mean, the world doesn’t give us the information we need to really know what we’re good at and what we’re bad at. Often it gives us misleading information. And often we’re guilty of misleading ourselves. So at the end of the day, if you compare what people say about themselves, and what they truly believe about themselves – to the reality of themselves. And that’s what I do as a psychologist, I measure the reality of people. What you find is some relationship, but the relationship between what people think about themselves and the reality of themselves – is relatively meagre, to often non-existent.
David: And this is like one of the most difficult things to fully accept and realize when it comes to – when you start to really explore psychology. Because, not only is it that it seems that we’re bad at assessing ourselves, we don’t feel that. We feel the opposite of that. Is that something you see as well in your research?
David D: That’s right. Yeah, we often do have a feeling that we really do know ourselves, and we know what we’re capable of. And the mistake that we make is that we often think we’re capable of lots of things that we actually aren’t capable of. That is, we’re overconfident, we’re too certain about our abilities, too confident in our expertise, a little too – having a little too much hubris in our moral character. But the key here, is that people really believe it. They really believe rather positive images of themselves. Though, when you actually test out what people can actually do – or what they really do, the picture isn’t that positive.
David: I remember the first time in my life that I really recognized that this was true. It was, in college I staged a fighting game tournament. Where I set up all these video game systems, and I invited people from around the country to the university to play a particular fighting game. And we had sort of a group of friends – it was like, 8 to 10 people in our hometown who played this game. And we thought that we were amazing at it. We thought that we were the best in the world. And I didn’t – I had no problem inviting the champions from the country to come play against us. And every single one of us lost both of our matches immediately. Like, we didn’t even place. We didn’t even come close. We were absolutely destroyed. And I remember all of us sort of shaking our heads and rubbing our temples and thinking, “How could we not just be not okay, but actually suck? I mean, like how is that possible?” And I bet that sort of – that happens a lot amongst people who are sort of at the amateur level – feel that they have achieved something, and that there’s not much distance between that amateur level and master level. Is this something that you’ve seen in your research as well?
David D: Well yeah, not only have we seen it. That is that – people who are at the amateur level, they really haven’t seen the master level. So they’ve seen maybe hints of it, and maybe they’ve seen that – occasional things where another person’s a little bit better than they are, but that’s all they’ve ever seen. And so when they – and this often explains the trauma of going to college. Where they go from high school, and being the best of their swimming team, to collage – and suddenly being in the– Down in the bottom 20% of the people who are trying out. They begin to realize just what a small pond they were a fish in. That is, that – a lot of the problem we have in assessing ourselves is we don’t get to see the entire range of competence out there. All the way from the worst, all the way to the best. And not knowing what the best looks like, we can presume that we are very close to that top. And the reason we think we’re close to the top is we really haven’t seen that top.
David D: And it is the case – I’ve been a college professor for a few decades now. And there is a time in about the first half semester, when students begin to realize that all these other students are good. And there are some students here that – who seem to be supernaturally good. And they’ve just never seen that. And that’s part of the reason that they thought they were so skilled beforehand. They’re being exposed to an entirely different world.
David: I think of it like uncles that I have that think they can win Jeopardy.
David D: Oh yeah.
David: But they– If you actually put them in front of Alex Trebek, they wouldn’t – they would go negative immediately.
David D: No, I think that’s right. I mean, one of the things we get to do – when we’re watching Jeopardy, is we get to choose which questions we answer. We’re not watching how many questions we just sort of skip. And the problem is, a lot of those questions we skip are going to make us losers when we actually go on the program. And put on top of that – the fact that you’re nervous, the cameras are on you, Alex Trebek probably is much more imposing in person than through the TV set. People just haven’t had the experience that’s going to give them a more accurate clue as to where their skill actually lies.
David: When I first was reading your research and your work, I– The very first example that came to my mind was reality television shows that are about people who are trying to win at some sort of a talent competition, or trying to win at singing. And I know that those shows purposefully grab a couple people who aren’t very good, and put them out there for ridicule. But you’d think at this point that those people – people would know that that’s happening and they wouldn’t go along with it. Is that the Dunning-Kruger effect? Whenever you have people who are not very good at singing, who actually go all the way to the end, and they think that they’re going to win that competition?
David D: Well it’s a good example of the Dunning-Kruger effect. That is – and in fact, in the early days, the name Dunning-Kruger effect was competing with the name American Idol effect. Because American Idol had all these examples. Of course they’re chosen for television. But we had all these examples of people who truthfully thought they were good, when in fact they were nowhere near any sense of the term good, in terms of their singing. And in looking at what’s going on for those individuals, it looks like they are unfortunately in the Dunning-Kruger world, or in the American Idol version of the Dunning Kruger world. Because, one of the issues that makes self-evaluation very hard – knowing if you’re good or you’re bad. Is that often the information you’re using to produce your answer, to produce your performance let’s say if you’re on American Idol – is exactly the same information or evidence you’re using to judge yourself. And of course, everybody’s trying to do the best that they can, so people are singing, they’re singing their best. They’re probably hearing something that’s pretty good. That is, what we hear internally is different from what other people are hearing. And because of that, they think they’re doing at least okay, when– In the old days, Simon Cowell might be wincing in the corner and diving under the desk. Or the judges are patiently waiting, because they know that the camera is going to take their reaction shot at the end. And it’s – and the reaction shot is not going to be the one that the contestant wanted to see. But it’s basically that, people who are singing – what they’re hearing is different from what the world is hearing. And what they’re hearing makes them believe they’re doing much better than they’re actually doing. That’s the Dunning-Kruger world.
David: And I imagine that in their hometown, they may be the best singer. Or in their group of friends, they’re the best at what they do. And there’s all this American stuff goes into it. We’re like, “Believe in your dreams. Don’t listen to people who tell you you don’t have it.” It can be, it can really be this tough to break out of psychological cocoon that I’m – I’m always afraid that I’m inside of one of those cocoons.
David D: That’s absolutely true, but here’s the other problem with that, which is that other people conspire with us to keep us in those cocoons. That is, one of the things I tell my students is, “Do remember that what people say to your face is not what they’re saying about you behind your back.” And we live in a world that’s polite. And we live in a world in which people just want to make it through the day without too much disharmony, and too much rancor, and too much argument. So you may not have the best voice in the world. There may be other people who are painfully aware – and I do mean painfully aware – that you don’t have the best voice in the world. They may actually be enablers in the belief that you can actually sing good enough to go on an audition to the TV show.
David: Mediocrity enablers, I want you to put that into a research paper. That’s a great term.
David D: Well actually, it is a great term. But the key about that is, if you go through the day just mark how many time during the day you’re being a mediocrity enabler. And this is just a conspiracy we do for each other. And that’s terrific for conversations, that’s terrific for everyday life, but it can lead a person who actually believes it, into situations with bigger outcomes.
David: Yeah. Well tell us a little bit about this – the MacArthur Wheeler incident – I think that’s one of the coolest stories about how a psychological phenomenon finally got quantified. Tell us a little bit about the incident and how it led to your research.
David D: Yeah, in the early days I was thinking a lot about the question of, do incompetent people know they’re incompetent? Because if you’re in a college professor’s office, you’ll often have people – and they’re not necessarily students – come into your office with wild eyed ideas. And you just look at them, and you think in the back of your head – they must know what they’re saying doesn’t make sense. Or if it’s not in your office, you go to a faculty meeting, and you hear it there. But one of the stories that I encountered early on, was the story of this would be bank robber in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – who robbed a couple banks in broad daylight with no visible disguise. And the police caught him within hours. I mean it was just a question of showing his face from surveillance tapes in the evening news, and before midnight he was caught. And he was incredulous, because as the police showed him the surveillance tapes, he started to mutter, “But I wore the juice, I wore the juice.” That is, he thought that smearing your face with lemon juice would render it invisible or fuzzy to video cameras. A wild theory to begin with.
David D: But he really, really believed it to the tune of actually robbing a couple banks without any sort of precaution against being caught, based on this theory. Now, to his credit, he actually tested the theory. He actually did smear his face with lemon juice a few days before, and then took a Polaroid selfie of himself, and all he saw was wall. What he didn’t realize is that he had mis-aimed the camera. So, there is a nuance to what he did wrong. But I remember reading this and kind of going, if a person can believe this – and you basically decide, “Ah ha, I’ve found the magic key to a life of crime that’ll succeed.” Imagine how many more times in everybody’s day, some less flamboyant version of this is happening.
David D: So that’s what we decided to test out.
David: Had he had some sort of incident or experience beforehand that made him– I mean, why was it lemon juice and not tomato juice or a bag? I mean like, where did he come up with this idea on his own? How did he – how did that even enter his mind?
David D: That’s an interesting question. I have no idea. And now that you ask the question, I would love to find out. Why of all things, lemon juice?
David: It’s so–
David D: I assume he was looking for it. He was looking for an edge – as we all are. And he discovered, I assume he discovered, he thought this was his edge. And so where it came from, I don’t know. But he was looking for something, that would suggest he could succeed at bank robbery, there’s no doubt. But I don’t know where the story came from. ‘Cause, in doing this work you get exposed to a lot of weird stories. And for some of them, you have no idea where they could come from. They just sound weird. But people act on them.
David: So, I love it. I think that’s one of the weirdest things I’ve ever heard, and it led to this great insight into the human condition. And it’s also – what’s great about the Dunning-Kruger effect is that a lot of intellectuals and writers throughout history have sort of – they’ve noticed it out in the world, to some degree, but then science finally came along and quantified it. I love when that happens. It’s one of my favorite things in the world. And a lot has been written about the Dunning-Kruger effect here in the last, especially the last 10 years. What – so just so we can have it exactly right, what is the true definition of the term?
David D: Okay, well I’ll give you the short version, and I’ll expand upon it a little bit.
David D: The short version is that incompetent people are not in a position to know they’re incompetent – in many areas of life. Now, they’re actually – once you have that in place, there are a lot of other things that fall from that or follow from that. So, incompetent people are less good judges about other people, and their skill. Incompetent people can recognize that they’re incompetent – once you change them into being competent. And incompetent people are going to– It’s going to be more difficult for them to learn just how low their skill level is. And this isn’t about denial, this isn’t about self-deception. They’re just not in a position to know. And the reason they’re not in a position to know is from something that we refer to as the double curse, or the double burden. Which is that if you have gaps in your expertise, or if you have corruptions in your expertise. You’re getting some facts and figures and how they connect wrong. That’s going to lead to 2 different problems from you. The first problem is that you’re going to make mistakes -obviously. I mean, if you lack expertise, you make mistakes. But in a lot of areas in life, the– You rely on that exact same expertise to judge whether or not you’ve made a mistake, have you come to a right answer or have you come to a wrong answer? And so, to the extent that you have gaps in your expertise – or corruptions in your knowledge, you’re getting things wrong – you’re going to make wrong judgements about how good or how bad your decisions are. And because everybody basically does what they think is the most reasonable thing to do, pretty much everybody is going to be left in a position where they think they’re doing okay. They’ve chosen the best out of all the possible options that are out there. Their strategy is the one that makes the most sense. The problem for some of those people is they’re incompetent, and they don’t have the expertise to realize that the strategy they’ve chosen has a lot of problems with it, because they literally lack the expertise to be able to recognize those problems. If they had that expertise, at the very least they’d be asking for advice from other people. So incompetent people are in a special situation where it’s not that they don’t recognize their lack of skill. And it’s not that they’re denying their lack of skill. It’s – they’re not in a position to make the call correctly. They’re not in a position to realize just how badly they’re doing.
David: You just don’t, you just don’t know the things you don’t know. It’s like–
David D: Yeah exactly.
David: It’s like – I think about how really, really, really smart people from our– From the history of science will oftentimes come to conclusions, simply because there’s a giant amount of stuff that they don’t know about – what they’re studying. Like canals on Mars and water on Mars and stuff like that. Like they, they’re doing their best, they’re doing hard science. And they’re checking everything out like – unlike the guy with the lemon juice. They’re properly going about trying to study the world, but there’s so much that they’re unaware of – to the degree that they’re not aware of the even lack of knowing it. And it can just lead to really strange hypotheses about what – how the world works.
David D: No, I think that’s right. But absent knowing the true knowledge, often what you’re left with can at least leave you with enough that you can come up with something that seems reasonable for example. So, remember that medicine used to be based on applying leaches to people to drain them of blood. There was probably some sort of phenomenon, some sort of folklore out there that made that plausible. Even though today we would find that to be incredibly implausible. And so one way to think about the problem of the incompetent, or people who are choosing incorrectly. Is, we all have a lot of knowledge. Let’s say we all have a lot of facts, a lot of figures, a lot of metaphors in our head. A lot of heuristics we can use in thinking, rules of thumb and so forth. And from that, we can cobble together what seems to be a reasonable answer to whatever problem we have in front of us. And the issue is – that may be the most reasonable answer we can come up with. But that doesn’t prevent that reasonable answer from being wrong. And the reason we don’t see it as wrong, is because there’s all this – other knowledge if you will. All this other information that we simply are not aware of. So one of the ways – I describe what’s going on. That is, there’s a borderline between what we know and what we don’t know. And I think everybody would agree with that. But there are 2 other assertions I would make that might be contentious, but not if you think about it for a little while. The first is, that border happens real quick, and it happens well within the geography of our everyday life. So that often we’re acting out of knowledge, but often we’re acting out of ignorance – and just don’t know it. We’ve crossed that borderline between what we know and what we don’t know. And we just – from our – we have lots of examples of that. Where people will go off, and they make a decision, they’re confident. But they’re acting on a totally wrong belief, a lemon juice belief if you will.
David: I’m going to use that for the rest of my life.
David D: Well yeah actually, it’s a nice phrase actually, because it does encapsulate it. But the, but here’s the thing that I think potentially is the most contentious. But the thing that our research suggests is the most true. Which is of all the irony of the things we don’t know, the one thing we definitely don’t know is where that borderline is. Between our knowledge and our ignorance. So, there might be a true red line between what we know and what we don’t know. But you and I don’t know where it is.
David D: And so we’re stepping over it all the time, rather confidently, and stepping back from it. And we don’t know when we’re doing that. And that is – that starts to create a number of problems. First in judging our own expertise at anything. But also judging the quality of our decisions in everyday life.
David: It’s really one of my favorite things, when you read about the history of science, is – when you come across people who were considered the smartest people of their day, or they were considered absolute experts on something. Like someone who is considered an expert naturalist or someone who would be considered a biologist today, but at the time they were just someone who was an expert on lifeforms. And they would just be absolutely, completely wrong in a way that is – the average third grader today would recognize. Whether it’s like spontaneous generation or things like that. And I love – what I love most about that is that – that person was considered to be like– They had achieved the highest level of expertise.
David D: That’s right.
David: For that time period, yet they – the vastness of their ignorance was – is incredible. And they could never have known that. And of course, the first thing you think is – how applicable is that to our experts today? Do you think that we’re getting better at accounting for the ignorance that’s probably part of whatever it is that we’re studying?
David D: Well, the first answer I have to give is, I don’t know. Because one of the things I do worry is– You’re right, if you go back 300 years and take a look at all the theories that were well received scientific theories 300 years ago. And you roll your eyes at them – because we’re in a privileged position, being here in the 21st century. It begins to dawn on you, probably 300 years from now – someone will be looking at scientific principles or theories. Something like the Dunning-Kruger effect, and go – and rolling their eyes about how wrong those researches got it back then. So that’s a – so the idea that our most cherished beliefs, even scientific ones might be overthrown is just something I accept. That could happen, and it’s happened in the past, it’s going to happen in the future. But one of the things I will say that puts us in a better position now is the habits of science if you will. That is, you’ve mentioned that – this problem of incompetence or ignorance has been mentioned for a long, long time. And it has, all the way back to Socrates and Plato. But where you see an outburst of talking about limits of knowledge, and discovering limits of knowledge – is in the enlightenment. And out of the habits of people, out of the enlightenments. And one of the habits of science. Doing scientific reasoning. And so we – if we’re in a better position to know when we’re wrong. And in a better position to discard what turns out to be childish theories as opposed to more mature and more valid theories. I think it’s because of the ways of science, and in particular one habit that is inbred or baked into the enterprise. And that’s the habit of scepticism or the habit of disconfirmation. That is – what I tell students is – scientists don’t go out and try to create evidence for their favorite theories. Some will think that that’s what they’re doing. But that’s not really what the enterprise is all about. The enterprise is really an enterprise about disconfirmation. Where you might have a pet theory, like the Dunning-Kruger effect, or whatever I thought last week, which turned out to be wrong. And you test it in a laboratory or you test it via data. And I can tell you how many dozens or hundreds of my pet ideas have gone to the laboratory and died. And that’s valuable knowledge. To realize which of your ideas are wrong, or ideas are childish or ideas are naive. And if an idea can survive an experiment, it probably is a correct and vibrant theory to behold or to have. And so, I think if we are in an advantaged situation, now it’s because of– We’ve learned. And especially in the scientific world we’ve learned that the name of the game is disconfirmation. It’s not confirmation.
David: Yeah, it feels like that was the – is one of the biggest turning points in all of– The pursuit of knowledge is that – seeking disconfirmation first, that’s what gets you results. That’s what gets you to the moon. And it’s so bizarre that the Dunning-Kruger effect is kind of our default setting. We have to unlearn to do that.
David D: That’s right.
David: I’m looking at your – one of your papers here. And I read this earlier, and I loved it. Because it – it sort of illustrates that there’s a lot of nuance here. There’s a lot more meat on the bone. And that is – one of your – studies that you did, it was with– Probably Joyce Ehrlinger…
David D: Oh yes.
David: You had told 2 groups of people 2 different things, but you gave them the same test. One test – you told them that – one group, that the test was going to be of computer literacy skills. And you told the other group it was going to be just logic and reasoning. And then – but both – these 2 groups took the same test, but they had different estimates of how well they had performed on it. Could you sort of elaborate on that?
David D: Oh yeah. That was just a key idea that Joyce had. Which is that a lot of – when we think about our performances. Like – have I said anything articulate today in your podcast? Or how will I do in my course lecture tomorrow? Isn’t actually based on the experience of the – of the podcast or the course lecture. It’s actually inferred. It’s something that I reason out from abstract ideas I already have about myself. So performance estimates, like, “How well did I do today?” Are actually, in psychological jargon, top down. That is, we take preconceived notions we have about ourselves. Like, “Am I a good lecturer?” And then infer whether or not our lecture was good or not, based on this preconceived notion of whether we think we’re a good lecturer or a bad lecturer. Good public speaker or bad public speaker. And so we tested this idea out by giving students a pop quiz on verbal reasoning. But we gave the test 2 different labels that we knew students would have a differing reaction to. One label was – that this was a test of abstract reasoning. And the one thing we knew about our students is they say they have abstract reasoning. That’s a skill they have up the wazoo. In fact I would – I would agree with that. In fact, sometimes their thinking is a little bit too abstract, but that’s another story. And the other group was told that this was a test of the type of reasoning used in computer programming. And we know from the students who wander into our experiments, they would deny until the day of their death that they had that skill. So they go, they take the test. It’s the same test, same question, same answers, same font, same – all created on the same xerox machine. So for all intents and purposes, it’s the same experience that’s been presented. But the students who thought it was an abstract reasoning test, thought they did much better on it than – they got more questions right. They got 8 out of 10, as opposed to lets say 6 out of 10 – relative to those who thought it was about computer programming. And in fact, this difference between whether they thought they were good at abstract reasoning versus bad at computer programming – was just a strong indicator of how well people thought they had done. As was their actual performance. So it wasn’t that people were divining how well they had done from the actual experience in any way that was tightly tied to accuracy. They were inferring how well they had done from what they already thought about themselves.
David D: And let me just mention 2 follow-ups to that work.
David D: The one follow-up which is now turning out to be important that we did it. Was, we brought students into our laboratory, and gave them a pop quiz on science. And one of the things we monitored was – well, what was the gender of the person walking in? Were they male or were they female? Because one of the things we know is, starting the late teens – teenage boys and teenage girls start to differ in how scientifically talented they think they are. And so, we knew that – and we confirmed that male students walking into our laboratory thought they had more scientific talent than the female students thought they did. They’re all taking the same test. By the way, they all do exactly – they all do equally well, men and women – on this test. But when you ask them afterward how well they think they’ve done – the men think they’ve done much better than the women think they’ve done. That is that you can have this split and preconceived notion about yourself that begins to play out in terms of the impressions people are creating about whether they’re good at scientific tasks or bad at scientific tasks. And in a – basically modern times, we know that men are over represented in engineering and science. This could be one of the mechanisms that’s producing it. Not differences in actual talent, but differences in perceived talent. Which cause people to evaluate themselves differently on a day to day basis. And one last follow-up, because this is also – this is where the work begins to impress me. Not that I’ve done it, but the results coming in begin to give pause. Which is that, you can ask the question – why are these preconceived notions of self having an impact on how well people think they’re doing? Wouldn’t it be swamped by the – just the actual experience of the test? That is, are you having a conflict between which answer you should choose? Has it taken you a long time to come to an answer? Do the terms look familiar and do they look alien? You would think this bottom up experience–
David: Right, right.
David D: But looking at – a few of the tests were just swamped, the individual difference. With Clayton Critcher, we did a follow-up to the original work, and we discovered that a lot of people’s actual bottom up experience is formed by their top down preconceptions. So that if you’re skilled, you think you’re answering the questions more quickly. You think the terms look more familiar. You experience less conflict between the various answers that you can give. Even though we can find no evidence of this in reality. But the look and feel of the test literally changed, based on– Based on what you think about your ability, walking into the room.
David: Wow. See that – that’s– So the inference on the back end is changing the way you perceive the reality of what you just experienced. And also – and correct me if I’m wrong. You can prime people going into the test by saying, “Women typically – this is a test of scientific knowledge. Women typically don’t do very well on those tests.” And then that could actually affect the process of taking the test – going in – or you can change it to whatever like cultural or ethnicity are variables that you can mess with – by priming people going in, can also affect how they perform on the test as well. Is that true?
David D: That’s right. So when we were – in our work, what we find is– We find what we’re doing doesn’t affect actual performance, but it does effect what people perceive of their performance. But there is a lot of work on the topic of stereotype vulnerability or stereotype threat – in social psychology, showing that ultimately you get differences in actual performance. Yeah, go ahead.
David: I’m sorry. So okay, with Dunning-Kruger and with this inference thing that comes from the – I think as you call it, a chronic self-view of yourself.
David D: Oh yeah, exactly.
David: So with this inference thing, where you actually experienced less conflict, and you feel like you’re doing a great job while you’re taking the test – or not – depending on what you’re viewing, how you view yourself and how you view the material. How does – if you as an expert, as a scientist could choose between like a head of state, like a President or maybe like a military commander or something – or someone who’s in a position of great power and authority. Which would you prefer to have? Someone who is – who is confident in a way that maybe they don’t deserve. Or someone who is very, very accurate at assessing how well they’re doing at a certain task and how good their decisions were on the back end?
David D: Oh, the only answer I can give, is I want them both but at different times.
David D: That is – there are some times when confidence is very, very important. That is, for example, if you’re a general and you’re about to lead your troops into battle – you definitely want to be confident. Because you want your troops to execute their tasks and not have any doubts, and not to delay – because that’s going to save lives. But you don’t – so you want a confident general at that moment. But before that moment, you want a general who’s incredibly conscious. Who wants as many troops as possible, as much ordinance as possible. Who has a plan B and plan C if plan A doesn’t work out. That is, you want someone who’s filled with doubts and using those doubts to try to figure out all the contingencies that are out there that can happen on the day that the battle begins. So you want that overly conscious General in preparation. But the day of battle, when it’s time to execute, you want a confident General. So one way to think about confidence is that it has it’s bad sides and it has it’s good sides. So it ultimately turns out to be something that you need to manage. You need to know when you should have it and when you should not have it. And there is no blanket answer that – and how you manage confidence. It’s not about, “Should I always be confident? Or should I always be cautious?” You really have to turn on the caution and turn it off and turn on the confidence in those moments when it’s going to be the most helpful for you or whoever you’re leading or whoever you’re responsible for.
David: Wow, and so that’s another meta skill that you have to practice and hone.
David D: That right, yes. Unfortunately in life, there are a lot of meta skills. There are many, many, of them. So it’s not a surprise that some of them we’re not very good at.
David: Right. So if you – in like, in an institution that wants to be better at making decisions and wants to be better at having people who are actually good at what they do, and don’t just think they’re good at what they do. Are there some suggestions from psychology about how to build better institutions?
David D: There are some helpful points that psychology suggests in order to avoid overconfidence that leads you over the cliff, if you will. The first is that, although it’s unpleasant, you do want to have nay saying voices involved in any sort of decision that you make. That is, you want someone to play devil’s advocate. Basically to poke holes in what the group or the institution might be thinking about what it wants to do. The reason for that is, having devil’s advocate can spot – can help the organization spot when it’s being overconfident. Or, sometimes just improve the decision that the institution’s going to do. So you want that. The second thing you want to do is you want to build in buffers for wrong decisions. And more importantly, wrong decisions that you can’t anticipate. You know that some of your decisions are going to be wrong. You know that there are going to be complications. You just don’t know when they’re going to happen. So in the software world, software development – it’s quite common to go to software developers and ask, “How long will it take you to design and execute this new software that we’re building?” And the developer will give you an estimate. And you go, “Thank you very much.” And then you immediately inflate it by 30%. Because you know that the software developer is going to be overconfident – hasn’t anticipated everything. So you just know that from past experience you inflate it 30% and you inflate it up to 100% of it’s new operating system for example. And architects know this. So they’ll – when they’re building a building, they’ll calculate how much concrete they need in order to make sure the building will be stable. And then they just multiply that number by as much as 8.
David D: To make sure. So you’re just building those sorts of buffers. Now both these – having a devil’s advocate is unpleasant. Adding more concrete is more expensive. But what it does do is it does insulate you against unknown incompetence. And you just know that it’s going to show up sooner or later, you just don’t know where. So you might as well just have these policies that help you address the problems that you can’t anticipate – when they finally rear up and try to bite you.
David: That is fantastic. And it’s also – I love whenever people acknowledge our shortcoming and account for them. Whether it’s with checklists, even with–
David D: Oh yeah.
David: Surveys or things like that or – in this case, like taking something like Dunning-Kruger and saying, “Look, this is probably happening. It’s all over the place. Let’s account for it.” And I was reading that some of your more recent research is in the realm of – we’re bad looking in one direction, but we’re also bad looking the other. And that we are both bad at recognizing genius or something like genius, if you want to use a different word.
David D: Yes.
David: And geniuses themselves are kind of bad at knowing that they are. Is that true?
David D: Oh no that’s – that’s actually part of the original Dunning-Kruger framework. Was that geniuses often don’t know how special they are. Because for them, tasks come easy, the right answer comes easy. And so they just assume, “If it’s easy for me, it’s easy for everybody.” And that’s very much a living phenomenon I see every day with very bright students or anybody who has more expertise in something than I have. They just assume I’m understanding everything they’re saying, and I have no clue what they’re talking about. So if a plumber comes to our house, on occasion, I will carry a tape recorder so that – they’re either going to speak to fast, I’m not going to be able to follow. But I’ll be able replay and then look up and to Google what I think the words are.
David: Oh that’s great advice, that’s some good life hacking right there, good job.
David D: Well yeah, but – and I have to– But you have to– I have to do it because I now recognize that person – things that I understand. And there is – other than crying, I don’t seem to have anything in my arsenal to make a person understand that I don’t understand. That was part of the original package. Part of a family of effects that fall out of incompetent people not knowing they’re incompetent. But our current work, what we’re doing is asking, “Well what happens at the collective level?” That is, ask about a group or a business or society. Sort of what extensions are there of this Dunning-Kruger framework? And the first thing that comes to mind is that the collective – you know is competent, but it’s not perfectly competent. Which means often, it’s not in a position to recognize true genius when it shows up. So, one of my favorite examples of this is the film, Vertigo, by Alfred Hitchcock.
David: Oh, yeah, yeah.
David D: Which just was voted the number 1 film of all time by Sight and Sound, the British critics – film critic society. And that sort of – the most honored list. As far as I know, that’s the most honored list. It was a bomb. It made it’s money back, but it was passed over for Best Picture. It wasn’t nominated for best picture. And it got really mixed reviews when it came out. So it literally took 50 years for the genius that was contained in Vertigo to be recognized. And the same is true for a lot of other things. Go back and look at the original reviews of the Gettysburg address. For example, you’ll find a lot of people kind of go, “Wow, that was short and uninspiring.”
David: Moby Dick. I remember reading how Moby – people thought Moby Dick was terrible, unreadable. There was also a lot of Walt Whitman stuff. People are like, “This guy’s so terrible, why do people read this?” So yeah, actually it comes up a lot.
David D: It does come up a lot, and so what we did is – we, Kurt and I engaged in a number of studies, where we exposed people to others who are performing very poorly, to performing extremely well in logical reasoning or in the financial literacy that they’re displaying toward others – they’re displaying. And what we find is that, the collective is pretty good at knowing who’s bad. I mean the collective is pretty good at judging who the poor performers are. But top performers just really get underrated. They just get missed. And so, our pithy way of saying it is that genius often just hides in plain sight. Most people just don’t have the intellectual scaffolding to be able to recognize it. And so that, whether that genius is embodied in a person or in an idea, people – or the collective often just doesn’t have the genius itself to be able to recognize what it has.
David D: And then, so that – that’s what we’re working on right now in a number of different ways.
David: That’s awesome, and of course, here’s the problem. You’ve just handed another out for someone who’s like, “Well maybe I’m just a genius and no one can recognize it.”
David D: And I think that’s exactly right. Or as one of my colleagues once said, “You’ve explained the experience of every working class kid who’s really smart in their high school.” But the problem is, you’re right. I mean, this explains the true experiences of some really smart people. But it also explains – or purports to explain the experiences of people who think they’re smart, but they’re not really smart. And that’s a much larger number.
David: It just, it just all around illustrates how – oddly enough we are not very good at assessing our own selves. I mean, before we go, I wanted to get this question in before we go. And that is – it seems like – okay, obviously we’re very bad in every, in both directions when it comes to assessing ourselves and accurately figuring out how skilled or not skilled, how knowledgeable, how– It seems like that would be important and adaptive skill to possess. It seems like it would be bad for us evolutionarily speaking. Is it just a glitch or a bug in the system? What is your take on that perspective?
David D: Well my take is that – I have a couple of different takes. The first is that evolution is designed to make us good enough to survive. But it’s not going to make us all geniuses for example. So we’re going to be competent enough to be able to ingest enough calories until we reach the age where potentially we can procreate – it’ll get us to that level. But it won’t make us all Einsteins for example, or Alfred Hitchcock’s or whatever genius that you want to think about. So it’ll get us up to a certain level. But the second point is, just noting how difficult this task is. That, if you sit down and say, “Why don’t people know themselves?” You begin to realize that there are just some – there are some really big barriers to knowing yourself. And those barriers are so big, that evolution is not tough enough to be able to defeat them. And so that’s what I think. One – however, let me leave with this note. Which is that – when we’re talking about – it’s difficult to know yourself. That’s if you make it a private task that only you are engaged in. You don’t talk to other people. If you talk to other people, they can be sources of invaluable insight into yourself. Some of them may be unpleasant. But also, just watching what other people do, and bench marking what you do, versus what they do, can be a source of insight. So that’s something to consider. That it takes a village if you will to – for a person to know themselves. Also, there’s one other thing I was going to mention here. Let me see if I can quickly– Oh yes, the other thing is that– People sometimes ask me, “Okay, how do you figure out if you are gaining in knowing yourself?” And one of the hints I give. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it sounds right. Is, to ask people, “Are you vaguely embarrassed by things you did 5 or 10 years ago?” And if you are, that means good, you’re evolving, you’re improving. I mean, if you think about the self you were 10 years ago and you’re not embarrassed by something that you did, you might be off the task of really—
David D: Of really figuring out the type of person you are, or the type of person you might be. So I’m always happy in a second order way, when I read one of my old papers and kind of go, “Wow, boy did I do that wrong.”
David: Right, that’s great advice. Like you should all – if you’re a creative person, or you output work like you do – I would hope that you could always look back on the stuff that you’ve made and be like, “Err.” Because like, especially if you’re a writer, if you don’t look back at this, at your old stuff. If you’re looking back at your old stuff and say, “Wow, I used to be really great.” Then there’s a – you are definitely moving in the wrong direction.
David D: No, no, I think that’s absolutely right. So, but both ways, sometimes it happens in reverse. Which is you’ll look at an old piece and kind of go, “Oh, now I get it. Now I get why people were paying attention to that. I didn’t get it then, but now I get it. Now I see.” To the extent that you can sort of look at your past self and see a different person. It’s just you, yourself now are a different person. And hopefully that’s more insightful.
David: And I think, here’s something that I think people would like to know. This will be my last question. I’ve saved my best for last.
David D: Sure.
David: And that is – how does David Dunning live his life differently, knowing what he knows about the Dunning-Kruger effect?
David D: I’m much more likely just to accept when I’m wrong. That is if I think A is going to happen, and then the opposite of A happens. I sort of look at that and say, “Okay, I’m shifting course. I was wrong.” I don’t rebel against experience, and I don’t rebel against data – the way I might when I was younger. I’m a little bit more laid back about making mistakes. Now mind you, beforehand – I don’t want to make mistakes, it’s terrible to make mistakes sometimes. And then some doozies have been made. But afterward, I don’t beat myself up as much. I just accept that a mistake has been made and try to learn – and try to figure out what I should learn from it.
David: So look, people are going to want to find you. They’ll want to keep up with you and see what you’re doing in the future – how can they do that?
David D: A couple of different things. My – if you Google “David Dunning” and the term “Sasi,” That’ll get you to my labs website, so you can see whatever is going on there. And I also have a list there if there’s something like this, where I’ve made a contact with the media. There’s been some interview or some article or something like that. I list it there, and often people can sort of – from the website, work their way into material that they might find interesting. So that’s the place where I’d start.
David: Right. Well look, thank you so much. I love your work. You’ve been very important to all the things that I’ve been into in the last few years. And I just really appreciate what you do, and I thank you so much for coming on.
David D: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.