It’s never been easier to know a little about a lot. We live in an age of information overload, bombarded by 24-hour news cycles and endless refreshments of news cut down to 280 characters. Learning enough that we probably all think that our own opinions are valid, even if we do not have all the information, at least we are trying to stay informed right? Well, that head full of half-remembered facts might make you think you are more informed than you actually are.
On April 19, 1995, a short-lived crime wave occurred. Striking two Pittsburgh banks, the brazen thief walked into the establishments unmasked, but brandishing a gun and demanded cash from the bank teller, and then left. For a short while, the heist was a success, but it didn’t take long for the police to catch their guy, using security camera footage to identify the criminal as McArthur Wheeler. Wheeler was found and arrested, much to his disbelief, as he “Wore the Juice.” In later interviews Wheeler went into the details of his masterplan, and added some strange detail to this already peculiar story. Wheeler told the police that before entering the banks, he had rubbed lemon juice over his face, believing that lemon juice had once been used to make invisible ink, so he assumed that lemon juice would render his face as unrecognisable on the security cameras, failing to grasp how lemon juice was actually used to write cryptic messages, or how cameras worked. Although it would be unfair to say that Wheeler went into this endeavour totally unprepared, because he supposedly tested his lemon-juice trick using a polaroid camera, perhaps just demonstrating that he was equally as good at photography as he was at grand larceny.
It turns out we humans are not very good at assessing our own capabilities, and often have a tendency to overestimate our own skills and knowledge. This was officially described in 1999 by two psychologists, David Dunning and Justin Kruger, from which the eponymous “Dunning Kruger effect” arose. In their original study, Dunning and Kruger tested participants across areas of humour, grammar, and logic, and found that subjects who scored in the bottom 25%, grossly overestimated how well they performed. It seems that folks who can be demonstrated to be the least capable, are more likely to exhibit the most overconfidence in that field. Dunning and Kruger attribute this to a “duel burden”, their lack of knowledge causes them to come to incorrect conclusions, and this coupled with their lack of experience renders them unable to realise that they are wrong: cementing their own assumptions of their own ability. This is a type of cognitive bias, mental shorthand that we all use to speed up our thought processes without the need to think too much, but it can also lead to some incorrect leaps of logic, driven by your own subjective experience rather than the truth.
While knowing a little may instil an overconfidence in some, others people, acknowledged experts in their field, may find that their confidence falters, and they start to question their own abilities, understanding that their expertise may raise more questions than it answers. So much so, that this phenomenon has a name, “imposters syndrome”; a feeling their successes are not deserved, and that they are somehow not worthy of the praise they receive, regardless of previous success and accolades. Humans are not good when it comes to assessing their own abilities.
“I know that I know nothing”Socratic paradox
So, who is most likely to fall into the trap of making a fool of oneself? Well, we all have the potential, no one knows everything about everything. We all have blind spots in our knowledge and we all have our own cognitive biases developed over time, but a change in mentality can help. Be aware that there is always something new to learn on a topic and be comfortable in what you do and don’t know, and be willing to have your mind changed on a matter. Not knowing something is not shameful, but a chance to better yourself. In fact, the Dunning-Kruger Effect occurs much less often in people from East Asian cultures, such as Japan and South Korea. In these cultures, people value self-improvement and self-criticism, and are much more likely to underestimate their abilities, and to see being corrected as an opportunity rather than a character flaw.
Kruger, J. and Dunning, D., 1999. „Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments “Journal of Personality & Social Psychology. Psycnet. Apa. org.
Mullangi, S. and Jagsi, R., 2019. Imposter syndrome: treat the cause, not the symptom. Jama, 322(5), pp.403-404.
Heine, S.J., Lehman, D.R., Markus, H.R. and Kitayama, S., 1999. Is there a universal need for positive self-regard?. Psychological review, 106(4), p.766.