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Mental Model: The Dunning–Kruger Effect
July 30, 2010 By Joshua Kennon Leave a Comment
Charlie Munger Mental Models

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is when someone is so ignorant they lack the ability to realize just how ignorant they are, leading to a sort of delicious paradox.

Have you ever wondered why some people come to erroneous conclusions despite all the counter evidence, overestimate their abilities, and constantly make mistakes whereas other, more intelligent people often claim ignorance and throw things on the “too hard” pile?

I mean, the reality is that 49.99% of people must be below average at any given time at any given skill. Yet, studies have shown that 90% of Swedish drivers believe they are above average, which is absurd. Most people believe they are above average in physical appearance. Most people believe they are above average when it comes to intelligence. How do we explain this?

In psychology, there is a term for this particular type of cognitive bias and it makes for an excellent mental model and it is called the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which an unskilled person makes poor decisions and reaches erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to realize their mistakes. The unskilled therefore suffer from illusory superiority, rating their own ability as above average, much higher than it actually is, while the highly skilled underrate their abilities, suffering from illusory inferiority. This leads to the perverse situation in which less competent people rate their own ability higher than more competent people. It also explains why actual competence may weaken self-confidence: because competent individuals falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. “Thus, the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.”

In other words, the incompetent person is literally so incompetent that he doesn’t realize just how incompetent he is because he lacks the capacity to process that information.
Lack of Access to Performance Standards Data, or Ranking Systems, Explain Some of the Reason the Dunning-Kruger Effect Exists

Dunning and Kruger argued that the reason people feel this way is that many people don’t have access to performance standards data. In other words, they don’t have a way to rank themselves against other drivers, or professors, or chefs.

Personally, I think this mental model could be exasperated by the “birds of a feather” nature of human relationships which causes people to be attracted socially, romantically, and professionally to those who are similar. This could lead to an echo-chamber feedback that may explain things like a group of racists believing they are intellectually superior to other races despite the fact they would fail standardized tests and read at the equivalent of a third grade level. Since they are only surrounded by others who are of comparable, limited ability, they don’t realize just how bad off they are relative to everyone else. They literally lack the data and framework to come to this realization.
The Test for the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Kruger and Dunning believed that for any given skill, incompetent people will do four things:

1. tend to overestimate their own level of skill; 2. fail to recognize genuine skill in others; 3. fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy; 4. recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they can be trained to substantially improve.

The Cure for the Dunning-Kruger Effect

If a personal has the ability to be trained, meaning the defect isn’t due to limited brain power or some other factor, the cure for the Dunning-Kruger effect is knowledge and exposure to data performance standards.

Think about the people on television shows like Hell’s Kitchen in which regular cooks compete to be the head chef at one of Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants. Some go in believing, with all of their heart, that they are amazing, talented gourmands. However, it is clear to everyone around them within a few days that they are terrible in the kitchen or have no palate.

If they have the inherent ability to learn, the only way for these poor fools to overcome the Dunning-Kruger effect is to realize how inadequate they are by exposing them to real chefs who are the best in the world. They will then understand that they don’t even begin to stack up to them and can start remedial training to improve their skills.

This leads to a fantastic paradox: They must first realize they are ignorant before they can cease to become ignorant. That is the type of problem that would make Confucius smile.


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