I just know I'm right

Apart from death and taxes, the next most certain thing in life is how social media will suddenly light up with self-proclaimed experts on whatever topic grasps the public interest at the time. Over the past few years we’ve had upsurges in confident opinion on everything from economics, British constitutional law, international trade, vaccines and autism, climate change, and now infectious disease. It’s a phenomenon many laugh at but there’s something deeper going on. It’s what psychologists call the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The effect first came to light when, on April 19 1995, a bank robber, McArthur Wheeler, held up two Pittsburgh banks. He did so in broad daylight, making no attempt to conceal his face. He expressed great surprise when arrested because, as he explained to the arresting officers, he had covered himself with lemon juice and was therefore invisible. You might think Wheeler was delusional, but psychiatrists found him to be perfectly sane. He reasoned because we use lemon juice for invisible ink, it also made him invisible. His logic, as it was, faltered not on his insanity, but on his complete misunderstanding of invisible ink. To use an old saying, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Two psychologists, David Dunning and Justin Kruger, picked up the case of Wheeler and after several phycological studies, gave their name to the phenomenon – the Dunning-Kruger effect.

In a nutshell, the Dunning-Kruger effect is where someone believes they have great insight or ability where in fact they have minimal knowledge and aptitude. The illusion of confidence leads to erroneous conclusions and resistance to any attempt at correcting them. They are, as it were, ignorant of their own ignorance. Charles Darwin put it well in his book, The Descent of Man, “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” To put it another way it’s when people know enough to know their right, but don’t know enough to know when they’re wrong. Little knowledge can lead to great confidence but as one’s knowledge grows, so one becomes more aware of one’s own ignorance. When a certain level of expertise is reached, then confidence grows once more. Or you can let David Dunning himself explain it.

There are a wealth of recent examples of the Dunning-Kruger effect but rather than poke those hornets’ nests I thought I’d find some less controversial examples. I came up with the following two.

The TV show “Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares” stars Chef Gordon Ramsay as he tries to save failing restaurants. In every episode, the restaurant owner believes they are the greatest cook in the world whereas in reality they are serving barely edible food. The restaurant owner genuinely believe frozen seafood and tinned pasta is just as good as anything served by a Cordon Bleu chef. Before they stand any chance of becoming a competent cook, they have to recognise their own culinary ineptitude (and get past Ramsay’s expletives). Some really struggle with this, even when close friends and family try to help them through it.

In 2012 the UK Taxman discovered the Scottish football club Rangers were secretly overpaying their players and sent them a bill for £50 million. In trying to avoid paying the tax Rangers changed their name to Rangers Football Club but in 2017 the Supreme Court found in favour of the Inland Revenue. Many Rangers fans became experts in tax law overnight as they covered the media in their opinions, focusing on the witch hunt against their club (one example from the Daily Record).

Before any reader gets too smug, as names of those they believe are suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect come to mind, we can all be guilty of it. It’s a form of confirmation bias, where we reinforce our own opinions by seeking out only that which supports it. Things may seem obviously clear and you wonder why others don’t have such clarity. But then you realise the world is complex and so it’s easy to think you know a lot about something when in truth all you have is a rudimentary understanding and there are depths you never dreamed of. The truth is we all over-rate our own abilities in one area of life or another. How many people do you know who would say they were bad drivers for example? We can’t all be above average drivers, from the very definition of average. It doesn’t mean you are stupid, in fact the Dunning-Kruger effect doesn’t correlate with IQ, you are – well, just being human.

The real test comes when those presented with contrary evidence, say, “OK, I was wrong and I have now changed my mind”. Those who already overrate their own expertise however, often just redouble their position and cannot adjust their beliefs no matter what the evidence. Unfortunately, evidence is more likely to contradict those who hold the strongest opinions than those less certain.

It may sound like I’m being holier-than-thou, and saying no one is allowed any opinion unless they are an expert. I’m not saying that at all, of course people have their own political opinions, or musical taste or favourite restaurant (those were the days) without being a professor of political science, or a master musician or a food critic. What I’m saying is (1) we should all be aware of the Dunning-Kruger effect and question our own beliefs accordingly and (2) be willing to adjust those views as we gain new knowledge. And we should all seek new knowledge driven by our curiosity, not our dogma. There’s no shame in not knowing, in fact in the modern complex world, we are all far more ignorant of things than we could possibly be knowledgeable of. The correct answer 90% of the time is, “I don’t know” but that doesn’t sit comfortably with the human psyche. And for that reason, the Dunning-Kruger effect will, I’m afraid persist. And for full disclosure, I’m not a phycologists and so I have no idea what I’m talking about.

(Thanks to Glyn Horner for his very much non-Dunning-Kruger input)

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