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Using the Dunning-Kruger Effect for Fun and Profit

We all labor under a whole pile of cognitive biases day to day, but let’s talk about an especially pernicious one: the Dunning-Kruger effect. This extremely subtle bias afflicts us all, affecting our very ability to assess whether we are suffering from a bias or not. So it’s super important to be aware of it and take appropriate counter measures.

David Dunning and Justin Kruger have experimentally documented the long recognized tendency of people to suffer from “illusory superiority,” and so have had the effect named after them. Basically, if you want to assess how good you are at a task, you have to understand that task well enough to be good at it. Which means that if you don’t understand it that well, you will overestimate your competence. While everyone can suffer from this bias in domain-specific areas, it especially afflicts people with lower general intelligence, who lack the metacognitive ability to recognize that their fundamental reasoning is flawed - such as the bank robber McArthur Wheeler, who applied lemon juice to his face in the belief that it would make him invisible to security cameras.

This bias has an interesting corollary: competent people tend to assume that what is easy for them is easy for everyone else, and so under-estimate their relative competence compared to a group. We’ve all seen our math whiz friend surprised that we count on our fingers, or that one guy at work who can come up with exactly the right phrasing for a concept that we’ve been struggling to express for hours. If you’re actively seeking ways to better yourself, chances are there are certain fields where you have a high degree of competence. You can use this corollary to motivate yourself to action. Say you want to start a business, but you’re crippled by doubt that you know enough to charge anything - well, seek some external validation from sources you trust, and with their go ahead, move forward knowing that things that seem easy to you are hugely valuable to others.

We can use the Dunning-Kruger effect in an even more interesting and useful way, though: actively cultivate the belief that I am dumber than I think. I got this idea from Derek Sivers and have found it tremendously useful. Since I recognize that I am predisposed to think I’m above average, I systematically tell myself that I below average. Not in a way that is abusive or self-flagellating, just outcomes based. Now, perhaps I end up with an overall inaccurate view of my competence (maybe I really am a special snowflake), but odds are I was going to get it wrong no matter what, and getting it wrong this way is more productive and useful.

Why is it useful to cultivate a disregard for your own intelligence? Lots of reasons. First off, it is impossible for anyone to begin to learn that which he thinks he already knows. Zen practitioners cultivate “beginners mind,” where you actively open yourself to possibilities and new connections. The certainty that you already understand everything you need to about a situation is poisonous to this mindset. The preconceived approaches of a self-identified expert to a problem are more likely to be conventional and generic rather than tailored to the situation at hand. Most importantly, a belief in your own competence is exactly the kind of food your Ego craves, and starving it will make you more pleasant to be around, less susceptible to making massive mistakes, and otherwise less likely to crash the burning wreckage of your life straight into the ground.

Even if you don’t make a regular practice to actively cultivate your self-perception of your competence, familiarity with this bias will serve you well. Any time you want to jump into an argument and give some advice - pause and ask yourself how much you really know about the topic. When you get frustrated with someone for screwing up something easy, ask yourself how much work you had to put into making it easy. Most importantly, I hope that knowledge of this bias will convince you to never ever stop learning.

Last modified on 2017-06-30