We all have what are known as “cognitive biases.” These mental blindspots affect how we perceive the world, ourselves, and the decisions we make. The worst part about a cognitive bias is that it’s often difficult to be aware of your own simply because you’re inside it. How can you perceive a bias when you’re steeped in that bias? It’s sort of like the way your house has a distinct smell that everyone else notices immediately but you’ve become nose-blind toward.
One of the most insidious cognitive biases is the famous Dunning-Kruger Effect, which describes the way people who are not good at (or knowledgeable about) something lack the perspective to judge their capabilities in it—that lack of experience and knowledge causes us to overestimate our abilities. In other words, people tend to think they’re good at things they are not actually good at. It makes us a lot more susceptible to what scientists call “bullshit,” and can get us into trouble when we dive into tasks or activities we have zero business diving into.
But as noted by David Dunning himself, one of the biggest challenges of the Dunning-Kruger Effect is that by definition you don’t know you’re engaging in it. If you were aware of falling victim to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, you would paradoxically no longer be falling victim to it. In other words, you might be swimming in it right now as you read this and not be aware of it. And it can have seriously negative effects on your life if you’re hired or promoted into a job you can’t actually do, or assume you know how to handle a health crisis that you’re really not capable of handling.
So how can you defend against the Dunning-Kruger Effect and protect yourself from the consequences of your own intellectual hubris?
The first and most important way to defend against falling into the Dunning-Kruger Effect is to challenge your own assumptions. Even the best of us can fall victim to confirmation bias—only paying attention to facts and details that confirm things we already believe. This can in turn lead to or support a full-on Dunning-Kruger Effect because we believe we’re confirming our own expertise, when in fact we’re subconsciously cherry-picking information that sustains an illusion of mastery.
How can you challenge yourself? There are two concrete ways to test your own assumptions concerning your knowledge and skill level in various disciplines:
- Seek experts. One way to find out if you’re really as good at something as you think you are is to seek out people who have real, proven expertise (and maybe a credential to prove it). This could be people within your company or organization who have more experience than you do, or who have specific degrees or measurable achievements, like awards in the field. Test yourself against them and see how you come out.
- Self-test. Another way to challenge yourself is to find ways to test your knowledge or abilities. If you think you’re good at chess because you consistently win matches against friends and family who don’t play often or seriously, try dropping in at a local chess club and playing some rated players, for example—or find a chess AI online that has a reputation for being challenging and see how you do.
- Widen your circle. If you’re the only person in your company or social group who has any knowledge of a subject, it’s easy to believe you’re an expert because there’s simply no one else to compare yourself to—or be challenged by. Seeking out a wider social group or professional network can put you in touch with people who might teach you a thing or two—and take you back down to reality in the process.
People who are deep into a Dunning-Kruger fog often avoid, ignore, or react badly to feedback or criticism. Criticism and feedback can be stressful and difficult for anyone to hear and deal with, but if you think you’re the expert in the room, your instinctual reaction might be pretty hostile—after all, these other folks can’t possibly know as much about this as you do.
But listening to feedback with an open mind is crucial for fighting off the Dunning-Kruger Effect. It’s a simple rule: If someone tells you that you don’t know what you’re talking about, take a step back and ask yourself if that’s possibly true. Consider who is giving you this feedback—do they have authority? Credentials? What’s their track record when they offer an opinion? Perhaps most crucially, are they the first person to offer this criticism, or the latest in a long list of people telling you that you’ve got it all wrong?
Finally, ask for feedback. Just because no one is telling you that you’re not as good at something as you think you are doesn’t mean they’re not thinking it. There are many reasons people might avoid giving feedback as much as you avoid getting it—perhaps there’s an imbalance of power (e.g., you’re their boss) or they’re afraid of damaging a relationship (e.g., if you react to criticism with hostility). Seeking out regular doses of objective feedback will tell you everything you need to know about your actual level of expertise.
There’s a concept known as “lifelong learning” that can have a tremendous impact on your susceptibility to the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Too many people graduate from school at a certain level, get a job, and stop learning new things for the rest of their lives. This can foster an outsized sense of competence because the last time they were tested on a subject or skill was a long time ago—and they may not be aware of how much a field has changed or advanced since they last studied it.
Being open to and engaging in lifelong learning will help you stay objective about your skill set and capabilities while also keeping those skills sharp and current. Learning and practicing can be a very quick crash-course in everything you don’t know about a subject or discipline, too. One aspect of the Dunning-Kruger Effect is assuming that because you were once very good at something you will always be very good at something despite not engaging in any practice or training for years. Continuously learning about that subject will help you use the skills you actually do have while gaining new understanding.
As a final note, one of the simplest and easiest ways to defend against cognitive biases like the Dunning-Kruger Effect is to simply ask yourself if you are absolutely certain you’re not trapped in it right now. Simply being open to the possibility that you’re not as smart as you think you are can act as a firewall against those biases.
Of course, do I actually know anything about the Dunning-Kruger Effect, or do I just think I do? We may never know.