Grok My Enthusiasm (44)
November 9, 2016
One in a weekly series of enthusiastic posts contributed by HILOBROW friends and regulars.
HiLobrow friend and contributor Chris Spurgeon recently launched a newsletter, titled Laws of the Universe, which encourages readers to grok his enthusiasm for “humanity’s slow but sure progress in figuring out how the world — the whole universe really — works. The following installment was first published in the Nov. 3 edition of Spurgeon’s newsletter.
Dunning-Kruger effect: The less competent an individual is at a specific task, the more likely they are to over-estimate their ability at that task.
Sure, ignorance is bliss. But being convinced you’re an expert at something, even though actually you’re ignorant — DAYUM — that’s the the best thing ever. People with poor abilities at some task can sometimes mistakenly believe that they are much more skilled at the task then they actually are. Examples of this are everywhere, from people who have never played a sport before, but just know they’ll be great at it, to people who’ve had one semester of French in high school, but have no doubt that when the plane lands in Paris they’ll be able to talk like a native.
This phenomenon, known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, was a running gag on the BBC program Top Gear, where host Jeremy Clarkson routinely faced difficult to impossible automative challenges (e.g. drive a car to the North Pole) with an insouciant “How hard can it be?”.
More prominently, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has made a number of statements that fall into this category, such as his November 13th, 2015 statement, “I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me…”
Cornell University psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger first studied this phenomenon in the late 1990s. Their work was partially inspired by the case of McArthur Wheeler, a man who robbed two banks in Pittsburgh in one day after covering his face with lemon juice in the mistaken belief that — because lemon juice is usable as invisible ink — it would prevent his face from being recorded on surveillance cameras. Wheeler was arrested just a few hours after he performed the heists. When the police explained to Wheeler how they had used surveillance tapes to catch him, he replied, “But I wore the juice.”
Wheeler’s breathtaking lack of knowledge of… well, not just of the chemistry of lemon juice, but of pretty much common sense in general… should have deterred him from something as foolhardy as attempting two bank robberies in broad daylight with no disguise. But somehow it had just the opposite effect, giving him supreme confidence in his abilities and his plan.
Dunning and Kruger noted a number of traits in individuals such as Wheeler, people with little or no skill in a task, but who nevertheless are sure they’ll be great at it…
- they fail to recognize their own lack of skill
- they fail to recognize the extent of their inadequacy
- they fail to accurately gauge skill in others
- they will recognize and acknowledge their own lack of skill only after they receive training in that task
That third point — that someone suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect can not accurately recognize a skill in others — is a key reason why that person thinks they are much better at some skill than they actually are. The victim of this effect has little idea of what true competence in a skill looks like. Because of that, it’s difficult or impossible for them to accurately judge their skill in relation to others. The very skill that they lack is the exact skill that they need in order to realize that they lack the skill.
There’s also the inverse Dunning-Kruger effect — people who are very skilled at a task routinely consider themselves less skilled than they actually are. The reasoning here is that a very skilled person may find an objectively difficult task easy to accomplish, and then subconsciously assume that if the task is easy for them, it must be easy for everyone. Therefore is no big deal. It’s one of the traits that can underly the so-called “Imposter Syndrome”, where accomplished individuals feel they are frauds and do not deserve their success.
GROK MY ENTHUSIASM: Rob Wringham on THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF LUNCH | Gordon Dahlquist on WEEKEND | Joe Alterio on MILLION YEAR PICNIC | Adrienne Crew on LA BARONNE EMILE D’ERLANGER | Josh Glenn on THE SURVIVAL SAMPLER | Alix Lambert on THE SKIES BELONG TO US | Adam McGovern on PENELOPE and CHAVEZ RAVINE | Rob Wringham on THE LYKE WAKE WALK | Mark Kingwell on NORTH STAR SNEAKERS & GWG JEANS | Gordon Dahlquist on FELLINI SATYRICON | Erik Davis on AH! | Devin McKinney on WHISPERING AFRAID | Mimi Lipson on 1973 SEARS ROEBUCK CATALOG | Jessamyn West on MOSS | Josh Glenn on THE SCOUT HOW BOOK | Brian Berger on SLACKER | Alix Lambert on ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS | Chelsey Johnson on MONOTREMES | Devin McKinney on THE BUTCHER COVER | Flourish Klink on ONE DIRECTION | Gordon Dahlquist on FULL METAL JACKET | Allegra Huston on CLOTHESLINE | Jenny Davidson on POWERLIFTING | Evan Narcisse on REZ | Deborah Wassertzug on VEGETARIAN MEATBALLS | Chris Spurgeon on WALLACE AND GROMIT | Mandy Keifetz on BENEFICIAL MICROBES | Annie Nocenti on MARKS ON WALLS | Molly Sauter on THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF | William Nericcio on LAND OF THE LOST | Dan Fox on “VOICE OF GOD” RADIO DJS | Brandi Brown on WIKIPEDIA TALK | Claire Lehmann on THE APPARATUS REVEAL | Alice Boone on COSTUME JEWELRY | Colin Dickey on WIDESPREAD PANIC | Anshuman Iddamsetty on THE FULL BODY PROJECT | John Hilgart on MAKING GRATEFUL DEAD ALBUMS | Rob Wringham on STEVEN UNIVERSE | John Overholt on DECKLE EDGES | James Hannaham on HABIT PATTERNS | Jessamyn West on THE PUBLIC LIBRARY SYSTEM | Adam McGovern on THE SPACE GIANTS | Brian Berger on MEDIUM COOL | Chris Spurgeon on THE DUNNING-KRUGER EFFECT | Joe Alterio on TABLETOP WARGAMING | Mimi Lipson on TRASH PICKING | Jason Grote on CZECH CINEMA | Roxane Gay on AUTOMATED CAR WASH | Dan Fox on JULIA DAVIS | Amy Thielen on BINGO | Steph Burt on FEIJOA.
#SQUADGOALS (2017 weekly): THE WILD BUNCH | BOWIE’S BAND | THE BLOOMSBURY GROUP | THE HONG KONG CAVALIERS | VI ÄR BÄST & dozens of other squads | GROK MY ENTHUSIASM (2016 weekly): THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF LUNCH | WEEKEND | MILLION YEAR PICNIC | LA BARONNE EMILE D’ERLANGER | THE SURVIVAL SAMPLER | & dozens more one-off enthusiasms. QUIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2016): “Tainted Love” | “Metal” | “Frankie Teardrop” | “Savoir Faire” | “Broken English” | & 20 other new wave songs. CROM YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2015): DARKER THAN YOU THINK | THE SWORD IN THE STONE | OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET | THIEVES’ HOUSE | QUEEN OF THE BLACK COAST | & 20 other fantasy novels from 1934–43. KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2014): ALDINE ITALIC | DATA 70 | TORONTO SUBWAY | JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | TODD KLONE | & 20 other typefaces. HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2013): “Spoonin’ Rap” | “Rapper’s Delight” | “Rappin’ Blow” | “The Incredible Fulk” | “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” | & 20 other old-school hip-hop songs. KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2012): Justice or vengeance? | Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | “KHAAAAAN!” | “No kill I” | Kirk browbeats NOMAD | & 20 other Captain Kirk scenes. KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2011): THE ETERNALS | BLACK MAGIC | DEMON | OMAC | CAPTAIN AMERICA | & 20 other Jack Kirby panels.