Why do some people proclaim with misguided confidence, “I have a great idea!”? Why is it that many people completely overestimate their own abilities in various aspects of life, from driving to managing money to starting businesses? Have you ever had to listen to someone tell you an absolutely ridiculous idea and then watch their shock as you fail to see their apparent genius? Human beings are biologically programmed to overestimate their own abilities This is a recognised psychological effect and you have probably succumbed to it on many occasions. But what is it, and how do you avoid falling into its trap?
4 Key Takeaways:
- Ask for feedback from others. Consider it, even if it’s hard to hear.
- Keep learning, the more knowledge you have on a subject, the less likely that you will have fatal flaws in your ideas.
- Remember the proverb, “When arguing with a fool, first make sure that the other person isn’t doing the exact same thing.”
About Niall McCormick:
Niall is a recovering engineer and now mature medical student at NUI Galway. He co-founded and ran Colmac Robotics, an award winning educational technology business for 4 years before starting a new adventure and beginning a career in healthcare. He is interested in too much but health, community and education are at the core.
Contacting Niall McCormick:
By Niall McCormick
How good are your driving skills? How healthy are you compared to your friends? How good are you with money? How good are your ideas? It turns out, human beings are biologically programmed to overestimate their own attributes and abilities. Social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger investigated this phenomenon in 1999. The effect was named after the pair as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
At its core, the Dunning-Kruger Effect implies that many people cannot see their own weaknesses because they lack the wisdom required to see it. They display illusionary superiority which is caused by two issues. They lack the wisdom to make good decisions and they then fail to see those decisions as being bad choices. This superiority complex is not due to ego, it’s due to deficits that they cannot see in themselves. Those with the least ability are often the most likely to overrate their skills and to the greatest extent. On the other hand, experts often do not perceive their specific abilities to be as far above normal as they actually are. In general, most people appear to display some level of this effect at various times. It is often said that a small piece of knowledge is a dangerous thing. You do not know enough to realise that you know virtually nothing at all. Instead, you grasp a small simple chunk and proclaim with sincere, but completely misguided confidence that you know exactly what you are talking about.
Baldrick, the loveable fool from the Blackadder series displays the effect several times over the course of the series when he produces his cunning plan to solve whatever predicament that he and Edmond find themselves in. Of course, the plan is always ridiculous in the extreme and never works, but is delivered by Baldrick as a genuine idea. He is an extreme example of the phenomenon – very little wisdom or subject knowledge resulting in high levels of confidence.
The diagram above perfectly explains the effect. At the beginning, you have absolutely no knowledge therefore your confidence is low. However, after gaining just a small piece of information and successfully digesting it, your confidence grows rapidly. This is the danger zone and should be avoided at all costs. You have now reached the peak of Mount Stupid. You display superior confidence and sometimes arrogance when dealing with the subject matter but with just a small bit more knowledge you begin to realise that all is not as it seems. You quickly fall into the Valley of Despair. You now know that there is so much more to learn and in actual fact, you have only sratched the surface. What follows is dubbed the Slope of Enlightenment when you gain more wisdom and begin to plateau. You are now entering expert territory. Interestingly, your confidence level here is rarely that which was displayed at the beginning, always coming in at a lower level.
So how do we avoid getting stuck on top of Mount Stupid? David Dunning offers 3 sage pieces of advice:
- Ask for feedback from others. Consider it, even if it’s hard to hear. Always share your ideas with those that have expertise and knowledge that you might not have. You have nothing to gain from keeping a bad idea all to yourself, falsely believing that it is an excellent one.
- Keep learning, the more knowledge you have on a subject, the less likely that you will have fatal flaws in your ideas. Look at the diagram. You can probably overlay an experience from your life that perfectly fits the bill. At the beginning you believed that you knew it all, that it was easy, but as you learned more you realised that in actual fact, you knew nothing. As time progressed and you keep learning, you began to reach the plateau of sustainability.
- Remember the proverb, “When arguing with a fool, first make sure that the other person isn’t doing the exact same thing.” Try to stay out of the danger zone and recognise when others are in it.