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The Dunning-Kruger Effect: A Different View

Updated on May 20, 2020
Chibuike Austin Atasie profile image

Chibuike studied Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Nigeria. He is interested in society, news, politics and history.

I bet you've come across that loud guy in your high school days who claimed to be the class' Einstein but his test scores claimed otherwise.

That self-acclaimed next rated artiste who lives around the corner, so confident in his singing abilities, or in this case singing inabilities, or even worse, "disabilities". He never relents in sending us links to his latest 'hits' every week on social media but we've listened to them and we prefer frog croaks way better.

The nerd who organizes an online finance class and labels himself the next Robert Kiyosaki but can't even sell DiCaprio's pen. The author of the book "How to be a millionaire in 30 days" but is still looking for money to publish it.

There are always these people who take the concept of self-confidence too far. No one's underestimating the importance of believing in yourself, but there's a level to it where it starts to appear somewhat delusional. Psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger identified this phenomenon as the Dunning-Kruger effect (Of course they were going to name it after themselves. It's their painstaking work!).

Dunning and Kruger saw this psychological situation as a problem. I'm sure you're familiar with the popular adage "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing". Thank goodness our medical educational bodies enforce the strictest measures possible to graduate qualified personnel from schools because I don't think any of us would be comfortable at the thought of a loved one alone in the theater with a doctor who lacking in appropriate surgical skills brings a lot of confidence to the table. I bet you won't risk that.

However, contrary to Dunning and Kruger's opinion which has consequently also become popular opinion (because, authority), there appears to be a positive side to it too. Probably not so pronounced, but it's there (although it's more in terms of the sufferers, than the people they affect). Before I proceed to discuss the positives, for academia and clarity sake let's see how the Dunning-Kruger Effect came about.

An Overview

The Encyclopedia Britannica explained the Dunning-Kruger Effect as a cognitive bias whereby people with limited knowledge or competence in a given intellectual or social domain greatly overestimate their own knowledge or competence in that domain relative to the performance of their peers and people in general.

In 1999, Dunning and Kruger led an experiment that made for their paper: "Unskilled and Unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated Self Assessment". They tested the competence of four groups of youth in Humour, Logic and Grammar. The results revealed that the relatively dumber ones exuded much more confidence, grossly overestimating their abilities even when they performed poorly. Little wonder someone said "The problem with this World is that the dumb ones are confident, and the smarter ones are full of doubt".

Related to but not to be confused exactly with the Dunning-Kruger Effect is another concept known as Illusory Superiority which was articulated by Hoorens and Vera to be a condition of cognitive bias wherein a person overestimates their own qualities in relation to the same qualities and abilities of other people. Okay, this one transcends just "overconfidence". Thinking yourself to be the best in terms of shoving the slightest possibilities of someone else being better than you in just about anything is outright misplaced pride to say the least.

But is confidence in its extremes really a bad thing? From my observations, it may not! An attitudinal display of overconfidence, albeit recklessly daring, also has a way of catapulting a careful employer of the art to the limelight. We've seen this undeniable fact in politics. People who may be in fact not far from clueless, out of bravado, larger than life show of charisma, the gift of the gab and perfect utilization of people skills, manage to defy the odds and double cross the qualified smarts with the good willed hearts who are not so confident enough in selling themselves convincingly to the public (After all, they're not even convinced about how good they are themselves).

The Demagog, Donald Trump

As a young Nigerian, I may not be very much ingrained in contemporary US politics although I try, from what I've gathered from popular opinion on the net, most people percieve President Donald Trump as self-overrated. Trump is in fact, my best pick for this topic. He to a large extent inspired it. An astute business mogul who grew his father's fortunes to the billion dollar crew. Trump is a good businessman to say the least, but definitely not as good as he thinks and sells himself to be (there are a plethora of his business ventures that failed woefully. Some so severe that his father had to bail him out.) Not to forget to mention that in so many ways, he's a political disaster too. Some people opine that his moves are very intentional to create a bloated effect of his person, but when you follow President Trump critically, monitoring his words and actions, and the outcome of those (especially since he assumed office, 'we can take his mishandling of the Coronavirus pandemic that has caused tens of thousands of deaths as a good example'), we can all agree that beyond mere show and acted display, Trump on the inside really thinks of himself as smarter than he actually is. This thinking is the single reason he refuses to rely on expert advice and suggestions in decision making, which in the end, as the whole world has seen and can testify, doesn't turn out so well. A sufferer of this psychological condition occupying the decision making cadre of any enterprise that directly affects the lives of others may be a perfect recipe for disaster. Being at the helm of affairs of a Nation even takes this exacerbation a step further owing to the fact that the people are usually with no other choice but to deal with his crippling decisions.

But on the other hand, you can't deny the fact that Trump's bravado is the single reason he is where he is today. No doubt! His cunning ability to take advantage of his "I'm the smartest person you'd ever know" delusion contributed to his rise to riches and influence. Whether he's aware he really isn't as smart is immaterial. This appearance has been a part of his life right from the onset. As far back as the 80s, Trump had already established himself as a false front actor when he inflated his net worth to make the Forbes list of wealthiest Americans. A move that secured more business deals, investments popularity notoriety, wealth, goodwill and of course power. Love or hate him, but you can't ignore him. You have to admit The Donald understands the basics of the effect of charisma on the human psyche, whether real or fake, if you can convince yourself you're the smartest person in the room, that personal conviction will also rub off many others and somehow, with little or no substance to show for it it, they'll still believe you.

Factbase did a study on the first 30000 words spoken by the last 15 U.S Presidents from the day they assumed office. Their findings were that Trump exhibited the poorest command of the English language, and spoke at the level of a fourth grader. But funny enough, rated him as the highest paid public speaker alive who rakes in about $1 to $1.5million per speech on the average. Who needs polished speaking skills by the way when you could be so "Tremendous"!

A Mogul From the East

Jack Ma, the richest man in China best known for his international online trading company "Alibaba" picked my interest for this article as well, although a lot less controversial and obviously a lot richer than our former subject. Jack Ma may not have made as many "intellectual giant" claims as Trump has, Jack appears to be on the humble side though (at least that's the front we see). I can't say for sure that the Dunning-Kruger effect is integral of Jack's personality, he hasn't made any exaggerated claims as regards his smarts to the best of my knowledge, but on August last year, at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai, for some reason, Jack Ma took on tech giant Elon Musk on a debate arguing the relevance of AI. It was very clear that he was coming from a position of stark ignorance and had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. Turns out it's better we don't argue with people we're supposed to learn from. I'm pretty sure it was an unsettling experience for Elon whose gesticulations and body language gave off this "how dumb could someone be?" message. The scene is really uneasy to watch especially if you're the type whose heartbeat rises when seeing a remarkable person disgracing himself on stage. Jack spoke beautiful gibberish with so much confidence! I'm sure any reasonable fan of his who watched the debate had their hands on their head in disappointment all through the experience. I don't know what on Earth inspired him to fathom the notion that he had a superior argument to Elon to the point of thinking challenging him on a World stage would be a good idea when it was clear he didn't have a clue on the subject matter. If it's not the Dunning-Kruger's, then I don't know what it is. Probably he was dared to do it. That's the only alternative that seems sensible. I wonder if he's seen the video coverage of that debate himself. I wouldn't be able to live with myself if it were me.

Below is a video excerpt from the debate. Feed your eyes.

An Afterthought

Whether the symptoms of the Dunning-Kruger's effect came overwhelming on him that day, or he woke up on the wrong side of the bed, one thing remains same: It doesn't take away the fact that Jack Ma is still one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the World. There's something the Dunning-Kruger's effect does to a person. It breeds extreme confidence in one's ideas. This kind of confidence exudes inundating charisma which attracts a cult-like followership. Adolf Hitler is credited with the quote "It's a wonderful thing for leaders that people don't think". Whether your ideas are crazy or even stupid, people would still buy into it. It's just a fact. People are obsessed with confidence. So obsessed that whatever you do, as far as you give a strong Impression that you know what you're doing even without showing any genuine substance for it, you are assured of their unalloyed support. Then in an instance where you happen to make some progress through trial and error, you create an enveloping effect on your followers. This effect could be so strong that one thing you get right can cover for a thousand you get wrong. This works like hell especially in politics.

This is the single reason why toxic leaders are forgiven in some cases, and worshipped in some. Trump, Ma, and a host of many other leaders in various walks of life have been able to use this effect to their advantage. Many African leaders who have no clue about what running an economy looks like don't hesitate to contest elections, promise to achieve miraculous economic feats, pull crowds that eventually vote them into office (if the election isn't rigged), and at the end achieve absolutely nothing (because they lack the basic capacity to get things done).

Turns out the Dunning-Kruger Effect could be an advantage to unsuspecting sufferers who know what they want. Extreme self-confidence has always been the trick.

© 2020 Atasie Chibuike Augustine


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