Monthly Archives: October 2011

Dunning Kruger and you

The Dunning Kruger Effect is something that people have joked about for ages but is apparently an actual psychological effect decently supported by scientific study. It states that people who lack skill in an area fail to recognize this fact and fail to recognize skill in others, while those who are skilled in that area lack confidence and assume everyone is at their level of skill; they fail to recognize their own expertise. In other words, the most belligerent, sure of themselves people are often the most ignorant.

I’m sure everyone can point out more than a few people who seem to resemble these statements, I know I can. Another apparent effect that I’ve noticed is that people who appear confident are often recognized as leaders over those who lack such confidence. In the technology sphere for example, business owners have little to no understanding of technological issues and don’t care to; it’s not their strength. Lacking any understanding of the subject they often seem to defer to the person who seems to exhibit the most leadership like features. Thus you often find people of questionable expertise running the whole show. I myself have been caught in this when I thought I saw expertise in someone, followed them…only to find out that they’re complete dipshits and I’ve found myself caught under team leaders and system “architects” that apparently completely lack any understanding of software architecture.

Another psychological trait of humans though, which I wrote about in my last blog, is Cognitive Dissonance. The theory behind this effect is that brains find believing two competing ideas painful. For example, believing both that one is an intelligent, reasonable person and also believing that they are prey to the Dunning Kruger Effect are two apparently incompatible beliefs. Brains don’t like this so they come up with rationales to explain away the discord, such as justifying the former belief by discounting the latter, and thus reenforcing it. A person in this situation may find themselves believing they are surrounded by idiots, which is probably something everyone can remember feeling at least once in their lives; I know I can.

Another method that one might go about explaining away this kind of cognitive discord could be to recognize that one is feeling surrounded by idiots, which is an apparently irrational thought, rationally analyze the situation and conclude that no, I really am that smart and these people really are that dumb.

How could one recognize that this is going on? Recognizing the former should be easy. If you find yourself thinking that you cannot be an example of Dunning Kruger in action then you are wrong and are justifying your belief in your own intelligence by discounting your own stupidity. If you talk yourself into the conclusion that you are not an example of Dunning Kruger in action then it seems this would be much harder to recognize.

This is the situation I find myself in. Is my boss really that belligerent and ignorant or is he actually more experienced than me, having understanding of things that I do not. How could I, lacking this hypothetical understanding, recognize this latter case? I’ve come to become a little disenfranchised with my field because I seem to repeatedly find myself in situations where the code I’m working on looks like it was written by monkeys and with people who’ve got ideas and opinions that are completely unshakable and also completely wrong. Is this bad luck? Is it just that I’m really that smart and what I’m seeing is the rarity of expertise? Or, am I failing to recognize expertise in others because I’m that ignorant in my field?

When I ask myself these questions I immediately turn to the belief that I enter into these situations expecting to be the small fish…the green guy that has to learn the ropes from those who really know the ins and outs of software development. I always seem to slowly come to the conclusion that I’m better at this stuff than most of the people around me even though they’ve got years and sometimes decades more experience than I do. This seems irrational but experience seems to tell me that people really do end up succeeding in a career without having solid expertise in it. In fact many don’t even care if they do or not.

Of course, any of that can very well be self-justification to get rid of cognitive dissonance. Perhaps I like to think of myself as an expert and so have to belittle the accomplishments of others. Of course, I really don’t like to think that this is true, instead believing that I’m a decent human being that does not belittle others just to feel good about himself, and so I’m more inclined to find ways to discount or justify such belittling that I do.

There really seems to be no way out of this circle for me. How about you?


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