The Dunning-
Kruger Effect

Michele Diego

So, in light of what we saw in Dunning’s and Kruger’s graphs, we could recalibrate Bertrand Russell’s quote, which could be: in the modern world the stupid are sure of themselves, while the intelligent are even more sure of themselves for good reasons, in fact, they could be even more.

19th of April 1955, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. McArthur Wheeler robs two banks in broad daylight and with his face exposed. He doesn’t need to cover his face: he has a trick up his sleeve. He doesn’t even worry about the security cameras that record him while pointing a gun at the cashier to have the money handed over. He’s sure he will get away with it. However, that same evening, the Police Department goes public showing a video of the robbery on the local news and, in less than an hour, is at the robber’s front door. The man appears astonished and, while being handcuffed by the agents, claims “but I wore the juice”.
Questioned by authorities, Wheeler eventually explains what he meant with that sentence. His trick up his sleeve, his secret weapon, consisted of rubbing lemon juice on his face, which should’ve made him invisible to cameras. The idea came to him when learning that lemon juice can be used as invisible ink. He also tried to take a picture of himself and, according to him, on the shot he was effectively invisible. The police decide to have him checked for drugs and alcohol. Negative: he is sober and lucid, he’s only rather uninformed.

The story of McArthur Wheeler inspired the work of socio-psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger of the University of Cornell, in the article Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments [1] they show the results of a study on the relationship between our real competence and what we presume we know how to do. The message we can get from the article can be summed up in a quote from Bertrand Russell’s The Triumph of Stupidity: the fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are filled with doubt.
The article doesn’t only capture the interest of academics, it immediately enters mainstream culture. Consequences are served: thousands of informative articles on the Dunning-Kruger effect, where one can finally find scientific proof that their boss, their colleague, their clients are effectively unconscious knuckleheads. Hundreds of perfectly designed graphs explain the Dunning-Kruger effect’s trajectory: to become an expert in something one should start by passing ‘Mount Stupid’, on which they are weak but believe they are formidable, then, by stacking abilities, one will realize their presumption and self-trust collapsing in the ‘Valley of Despair’; at last, whoever will find the strength to stand up and work hard will improve in their real ability as well as in self-trust, thus climbing the ‘Slope of Enlightenment’. We can also find hundreds of videos on YouTube in which the Dunning-Kruger effect is explained using the above-mentioned graph, with interposing pieces of interviews of people on the street, convinced that Earth is flat or, worse, sustaining Donald Trump.

Therefore, what is there to add to the thousands of articles and graphs? Three things, if I may: a confession, a clarification, and a suggestion.
The confession is that yours truly certainly a victim of the Dunning-Kruger effect. There is more: since the victims of such an effect are by definition unaware of this condition, there is no doubt that I am a victim precisely when I don’t think I am. Who knows in which and how many fields of human knowledge I am the robber of the situation with lemon juice rubbed on their face? Despite this irreparable condition, I have nevertheless decided to venture through the reading of Dunning’s and Kruger’s original article.
The study they have conducted is divided into four experiments. To sum up the article, we can say (simplifying a bit) that in each of these experiments the participants (all students at Cornell University) sustain an exam, at the end of which they formulate a prevision on their results. The prevision is then compared with the actual result.
In the study the participants are divided into four quartiles according to the obtained results; to be clear, we can distinguish them in: bad, scarce, good, and excellent. So, what can we see from the experiment conducted by the two psychologists?
The first thing that stands out is unequivocal: in all four tests, the bad and the scarce have overestimated their real performances (by a lot). Not only do they think that they have done better than what they did, but they also consider themselves above average. Therefore, ‘Mount Stupid’ appears to exist: the stupid truly are cocksure, as Russell would say.
Looking at the graphs, however, we can say something more, and this is the clarification: the ‘Valley of Despair’ in which, even having good knowledge, we consider ourselves ignorant, helpless, and desperate, is a lie. If such a place existed in Dunning’s and Kruger’s results, we should’ve seen a drop in the previsions of the ‘good’, who should enormously underestimate their ability, to the extent of considering themselves much worse than the ‘bad’ and the scarce’. This drop is not at all noticeable in the graphs reported in the article. Only on one of four tests, can we see the good foretelling a lower outcome than the scarce and bad; but then again, this enlightens once more how much these were opinionated, and not the lack of confidence in the good. Indeed, the good consider their outcome in a somewhat realistic way: their prevision on the exam’s result almost perfectly coincides with the real one. The ‘Valley of Despair’, therefore, if anything is the ‘Plain of Awareness’, where one believes to know what they truly know.

Finally, we have those we baptized as ‘excellent’. In all the articles’ graphs, we can see how they always foretell outcomes equal or superior to the others. They feel the best, and they are. However, it is also true that in all four experiments the excellent underestimate themselves compared to their final result, which is always exceeding their expectations. So, they feel better than everyone; they are, and they are even better than they thought.
So, in light of what we saw in Dunning’s and Kruger’s graphs, we could recalibrate Bertrand Russell’s quote, which could be: in the modern world the stupid are sure of themselves, while the intelligent are even more sure of themselves for good reasons, in fact, they could be even more.
Now that we had the audacity of retouching Russell, can we consider ourselves satisfied? Almost, we are missing the suggestion, which doesn’t come from me but David Dunning himself. The effect that is named after him and his colleague Justin Kruger does not regard, in truth, stupidity. It has to do with ignorance. Ignorance in specific sectors. The experiments in the study are four because four are the explored categories: Humor, English grammar, and Logic, twice. All this to say that since what we know is defined and what we do not is infinite, we all are, sooner or later, in one sector or another, victims of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Therefore, here is the suggestion: Let us avoid thinking that the world bad place due to others, whether it the cocksure stupid, the boomers, functional illiterates, fools manipulated by fake news, with whom we members of superior intelligence – yet filled with doubt – have nothing to do. There is space for everyone: from the drivers that 80% of times feel like they are above average [4], most of us think we have healthier routines than others [5], passing through the teachers that 90% of times feel better than their colleagues [6], all the way to the 25% of students that feel like they are in the top 1% in social capabilities [7]. In a conversation on Reddit, David Dunning, when questioned about his work, writes «If you ask me what single characteristic makes a person prone to self-deception and motivated reasoning, I would say that they are breathing».

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