“When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it; this is knowledge.”
~Confucius (551–479 B.C.E.), Analects
One of the pleasures of joining seventeen scholars from six countries at last week’s 20th Sydney Symposium on Social Psychology was getting to know the affable and articulate David Dunning.
Dunning (shown here) recapped a stream of studies on human overconfidence. When judging the accuracy of their factual beliefs (“Did Shakespeare write more than 30 plays?”) or when predicting future events (such as the year-end stock market value), people are typically more confident than correct. Such cognitive conceit fuels stockbrokers’ beliefs that they can outperform the market—which, as a group, they cannot. And it feeds the planning fallacy—the tendency of contractors, students, and others to overestimate how quickly they will complete projects.
To this list of studies, Dunning and Justin Kruger added their own discovery, now known as the Dunning-Kruger effect: Those who score lowest on various tests of knowledge, logic, and grammar are often ignorant of their own ignorance. Never realizing all the word possibilities I miss when playing Scrabble, I may overestimate my verbal competence.
Likewise—to make this even more personal—those of us with hearing loss often are the last to recognize such . . . not because we are repressing our loss, but simply because we are unaware of what we haven’t heard (and of what others do hear). To Daniel Kahneman’s kindred observation that we are “blind to our [cognitive] blindness,” I would add that we can also be literally deaf to our deafness. We don’t know what we don’t know.
Thus ironically, and often tragically, those who lack expertise in an area suffer a double-curse—they make misjudgments, which they fail to recognize as errors. This leads them, notes Dunning, to conclude “they are doing just fine.”
Note what Dunning is not saying—that some people are just plain stupid, a la Warren Buffett:
Rather, all of us have domains of inexpertise, in which we are ignorant of our ignorance.
But there are two remedies. When people express strong views of topics on which they lack expertise, we can, researcher Philip Fernbach found, ask them to explain the details: “So exactly how would a cap-and-trade carbon emissions tax work?” A stumbling response can raise their self-awareness of their ignorance, lessening their certainty.
Second, we can, for our own part, embrace humility. For anything that matters, we can welcome criticism and advice. Another personal example: As I write about psychological science, I confess to savoring my own words. As I draft this essay, I am taking joy in creating the flow of ideas, playing with the phrasing, and then fine-tuning the product to seeming perfection. Surely, this time my editors—Kathryn Brownson and Nancy Fleming—will, for once, find nothing to improve upon? But always they find glitches, ambiguities, or infelicities to which I was blind.
Perhaps that is your story, too? Your best work, when reviewed by others . . . your best tentative decisions, when assessed by your peers . . . your best plans, when judged by consultants . . . turn into something even better than you, working solo, could have created. Our colleagues, friends, and spouses often save us from ourselves. The pack is greater than the wolf.
In response to my wondering if his famed phenomenon had impacted his life, Dunning acknowledged that he has received—and in all but one instance rebuffed—a stream of journalist queries. Their plea: Could he please apply the blindness-to-one’s-own-incompetence principle to today’s American political leadership?
But stay tuned. Dunning is putting the finishing touches on a general audience trade book (with one possible title: You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know—and Why It Matters).