This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Miscellany: We think we know more than we do

We’ve all done this, right—pretended we know something that we really don’t?

Or we’ve argued for a position we’re sure about, but if we’re honest we’d have to admit that we really don’t know all that much about the subject.

That word “we” is important in David Dunning’s article “We Are All Confident Idiots” (Pacific Standard, November/December 2014) because it helps us realize he’s not looking down on us. This false confidence is a human trait.

Dunning is a professor of psychology at Cornell University, and his article draws on research from various sources.

But he begins with a couple of humorous examples. Last March at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, he writes, “the late-night talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live! sent a camera crew out into the streets to catch hipsters bluffing.”

Since people at such festivals pride themselves on knowing the new acts, the crew played a trick on them. They asked one man about Contact Dermatitis, “Do you think he has what it takes to really make it to the big time?”
“Absolutely,” the fan said.

However, there’s no such act.

The crew asked a young woman what she knew about Tonya and the Hardings. Not getting the joke, the woman launched into an elaborate response about the fictitious band.

For more than 20 years, Dunning has researched people’s understanding of their own expertise. His research has led him to the conclusion that “to a great degree, we fail to recognize the frequency and scope of our ignorance,” he writes.

In 1999, he and a graduate student published a paper that documented how, in many areas of life, incompetent people “cannot recognize just how incompetent they are.”

What’s curious, he writes, is that rather than leaving people disoriented, perplexed or cautious, “the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels like knowledge.”

We all tend to overestimate our knowledge and performance, Dunning writes, “whether it’s grammar, emotional intelligence, logical reasoning, firearm care and safety, debating or financial knowledge.”

We may like to call others idiots, but we’re all guilty of this. Dunning says one should not think of the ignorant mind as uninformed but as “misinformed.”

So how do we address this ignorance?

Traditionally we think of ignorance as lack of knowledge and appeal to more education. But education, writes Dunning, “even when done skillfully, can produce illusory confidence.”

He offers the example of driver’s education courses, which, “particularly those aimed at handling emergency maneuvers, tend to increase rather than decrease accident rates.”

Training people to handle snow and ice, for example, leaves them feeling like they’re experts at it, when in fact their skills usually erode rapidly after they leave the course.

“The most difficult misconceptions to dispel,” Dunning writes, “are those that reflect sacrosanct beliefs.”

This is because calling such a belief into question calls the entire self into question. This can be addressed, however, by shoring up the person’s identity elsewhere.

Studies have shown that people are more open to alternative beliefs when, for example, they’ve written an essay about an important aspect of themselves.

Knowledge of our own ignorance is hard to come by, especially when our heads are full of immense knowledge. Sometimes the best response we can give to a question is, “I don’t know.”

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