a bonobo humanity?

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

The Dunning-Kruger effect – what does it really mean?

leave a comment »

Canto: So we’re going to pick up on something else from the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe (SGU), same episode in fact (931), because it’s interesting, and I’ve referred to it before, perhaps not accurately.

Jacinta: Yes, this is the thing, as autodidacts and dilettantes we learn, or try to learn, by putting things we read or hear into our own words, an attempt to own the knowledge, to make it ours – for as long as we remember or retain it. So, the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is generally, or at least by us, described as ‘we tend to think we’re smarter than we really are, because we’re not smart enough to recognise those that are smarter than we are’, or something like that. 

Canto: So Dr Steven Novella, who may or may not be smarter than us, has looked into this effect for us, not for the first time, on the SGU. And we’re going to do our own job on his job. 

Jacinta: So to paraphrase Novella’s account… Well, first, here’s a definition from the Decision Lab website:

The Dunning-Kruger effect occurs when a person’s lack of knowledge and skills in a certain area cause them to overestimate their own competence. By contrast, this effect also causes those who excel in a given area to think the task is simple for everyone, and underestimate their relative abilities as well.

Canto: Hmmm. I get the first part, but the second part, that’s interesting. A maths whizz – or should that be wiz, short for wizard? – is so good at simultaneously equationising, or so practised at it –  that she underestimates others’ lack of knowledge/practise. We all think others are more or less like us, whether we’re dumb or smart?

Jacinta: Well here’s how Novella puts it. Dunning and Kruger observed that if you give people, say, a knowledge test, and then asked them two questions – first, how do you think you went? – say as a percentage – and second, how do you think you went, compared to others, or what percentage of others do you reckon you beat in the test? They found that mostly people were accurate predictors for the first question – that’s to say on how many questions they got right – but there was a tendency for those who did very well to underestimate their result, and for those who did very badly to overestimate. But when asked about how they did compared to others, everyone, whether they did well or badly, thought they were above average. 

Canto: Right, so that means, for those who did badly, and even failed, they thought they were above average. And that’s the key finding – that’s the effect. 

Jacinta: Yes, but Novella chose to talk about this because some mathematicians recently have questioned, or claimed they’ve debunked, Dunning-Kruger. And this seems to be a matter of interpretation. Dunning and Kruger claimed that the statistics show that ‘your relative lack of knowledge impairs your ability to assess your own knowledge’. The new analysis claims – and this might seem like hair-splitting – that this is an invalid inference. The alternative explanation is that everybody just thinks, or assumes, they’re above average. A kind of in-built cognitive bias that’s an evolutionary adaptation.

Canto: But of course, it can’t be true, statistically. 

Jacinta: Well, of course. But it’s been a regular finding that most of us think we’re more physically attractive, better drivers, and generally smarter, which is statistically impossible. 

Canto: So in the end, unsurprisingly, this effect is just part of the larger effect, that we have a higher opinion of ourselves or our various abilities or capabilities, if only slightly, than is justified by objective testing.

Jacinta: Yes, it’s like when people say ‘I can’t dance to save myself, I’ve got two left feet’, but they don’t quite believe it, they just think dancing is beneath them, and if they put the effort in… 

Canto: Well maybe, but with Dunning-Kruger it’s like, you don’t know what you don’t know. And with smart people it might be not knowing quite how much smarter you are than others. 

Jacinta: So, although there’s no cure, it’s always worth bearing in mind that you know less than you could know about any topic, and that there’s no skill you have that couldn’t be improved…

Canto: And then you get old and everything starts to fall apart….



https://www.theskepticsguide.org/podcasts (episode 931)



Written by stewart henderson

May 26, 2023 at 5:13 pm

Posted in Dunning-Kruger

Tagged with , ,

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: