Dumb, Dumber, and Dunning Kruger

one-way-street-582635_1280 I’ve heard people talk about Dunning Kruger so much I thought it was a country music duo.

Actually it's a cognitive bias—"the Dunning Kruger effect"—in which individuals who are relatively unskilled at a task have an illusion of superiority at it. In the words of psychologist David Dunning: “The incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.”

I can testify to the accuracy of the DK effect after watching US Presidential candidates huff and puff their way through complex foreign policy issues, with overweening certainty. What makes this tendency especially dangerous—whether it’s a business leader (or consultant!) always claiming to know the right strategy for a company or a political leader sounding off with a ready and simple answer to every world problem—is that people are attracted to leaders who exude complete confidence. And the less these individuals know, the more certain they are.

I saw plenty of this in my rock days. Players at the low end of the skill ladder thought their musicianship—or vocal ability or songwriting talent—was as good as that of the top acts. One redeeming aspect of this illusion is that it keeps many musicians in the game long enough to actually acquire the skills they need. (Hmm. Now I have to wonder about my own arrogance as a young musician...)

At any rate, this may be related to a condition called anosognosia—a deficit in self-awareness in which an individual is in complete denial of the deficit. Much has been written about the importance of emotional intelligence (or social intelligence) which is a better predictor of success in life than standard IQ. An important feature of emotional intelligence is self-awareness, including the ability to accurately assess one’s strengths and weaknesses. Folks with lower emotional intelligence have a distorted view of their own abilities. (Why a disproportionate percentage of these folks want to run for national office is a question for a different blog.)

Good leaders—in business, entertainment, or politics—know their weaknesses. They also make sure they have the right folks around them to fill in the gaps.

For more on Dunning Kruger, check here. To see DK in action check here, as Jimmie Kimmel interviews SXSW attendees who speak so convincingly about bands that don't exist! (I laughed so hard my spleen hurt.) Listen to the commentary about Willie Nelson Mandela—or Tonya & the Hardings.

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  1. Oh, please, can we start a band called Willie Nelson Mandela?

    When I was researching ignorance (hey, somebody has to) I was disturbed to learn that the more we learn, the less confident we feel about what we know. The old scientific adage apparently applies: every answer raises 10 questions.

    Reading Brené Brown's Daring Greatly and realizing that it's a balancing act, exuding confidence because we feel confident, despite knowing how much we don't know.

  2. I think there's a big difference between someone who is so stupid they don't know they're stupid, and someone who is just smart enough to be a good BS-er. I've met both kinds, and they're both dangerous.

    BTW... Tonya & the Hardings kick ass!

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