Why we do what we do: What do you Really Know? Dunning – Kruger Effect

Most people are familiar with the famous Bertrand Russell Quote, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” The challenge is how would you understand where you are in that paradigm? Are you the fool or are you the wise? How do you even know your real level of competence at any one moment? What is the difference between an expert and the average person?

One of the most famous psychological studies in the last few years is the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Its best description is:

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled people make poor decisions and reach erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to recognize their mistakes. The unskilled therefore suffer from illusory superiority, rating their ability as above average, much higher than it actually is, while the highly skilled underrate their own abilities, suffering from illusory inferiority. To put simply, when you don’t know what you don’t know, you have no ability to differentiate what is right or wrong.

Confidence is a tricky thing, as you need it to be able to stand up to challengers, but at the same time you need to be careful to not inflate it based on impression and not reality. Without confidence, we would never be able to convince others of any point we are trying to make. We have all dealt with people who obviously talked much more about their impact then could possibly be based on reality, but how do we know that we are not repeating the same mistake. Even worse, how do we know when others are playing on this psychological trick to take advantage of us, even if they do not consciously know they are doing it at the time?

The truth is that you will find far fewer real experts then those that claim to be. Statistically, an expert would be in the upper 5 or 10% of a certain field, yet we both have no way of measuring this and we are over run with experts claiming to be the best at what they do. Everyone thinks that what they are doing is the best way, otherwise they wouldn’t be doing it. Even worse, we get caught up in all sorts of promises, be it other customers claims, or their own skill set to evaluate that information. As the world becomes more complex, or as people from outside disciplines attempt to take their prior knowledge and apply it to a new field, they become even more susceptible to this problem. Even worse, like all biases, this impacts the more intelligent people more then the less intelligent. Dunning-Kruger is a double edged sword, as those that are most likely to be susceptible to the claims of experts are those that are least skilled in their own right:

“The skills needed to produce logically sound arguments, for instance, are the same skills that are necessary to recognize when a logically sound argument has been made. Thus, if people lack the skills to produce correct answers, they are also cursed with an inability to know when their answers, or anyone else’s, are right or wrong. They cannot recognize their responses as mistaken, or other people’s responses as superior to their own.”

This entire phenomenon is what causes the vicious cycles and what explains the over saturation in the analytics communities of people propagating the same tired actions by giving them new names and by finding others to make them feel good about their failed actions. Stories become the ultimate shortcut to show how amazing something is, without ever actually providing logical evidence to arrive at that conclusion. The truth is that people are rewarded for their ability to give people who already hold or held power ways to continue to run their empire, often with little relevance to getting results or to doing the right thing. This is certainly not unique to analytics, but it is important to this audience. We follow the greatest speakers, not the greatest thinkers. We worry about the best ways to make a presentation or to get reports out, not trying to stop entire conversations that are both negative to the organization and inefficient. We focus on how do we get others to see things our way, not on if we are seeing things the right way? Far more time is spent on how to convince others then it is on trying to analyze our own actions. One of the best quotes I have heard is, “There is no correlation between being a great speaker and having great ideas.”

So in the end, we are responsible to ourselves to look in the mirror and ask if we are suffering from a belief in others, or if we are discovering the best answers. Is convincing others and yourself that you are expert the most important action you can take? Just because you can make an analysis and use it to convince others, does that actually make it correct or valuable? Or is the discovery of the next right answer more important then getting credit for owning an action? It is up to everyone to decide what they really want to accomplish in their time, but if you are more interested in doing the right thing, then you must always be aware of Dunning-Kruger.

In order to do this, we must first set rules that help us hold ourselves and others accountable for what they do, in order to remove as much bias from evaluating success as possible.

Here are some simple steps to help make sure you are reaching the levels of success that you might believe that you are achieving:

1) Always ask, “In what ways can we challenge what we are doing?” or “How can I break this process”? No gain comes from doing things the exact same way you have been doing them.

2) Read, grow, look beyond your group. Know that you have never found the right answer, and the search is more important than the actual answer.

3) Define success up front. This is not just the goals your boss sets for you, but more importantly what it is that will define a successful program?

4) Make sure you are not measuring the outcome, but your influence on the outcome.

5) Seek out those that will challenge everything you believe. You do not need to agree, but only talking to like minded people is the fastest way to become the observed with Dunning – Kruger.

6) Assume that if you have not found a way to break a process in the last year or two, that you are not trying hard enough

7) Challenge everyone to take an idea to the next level. The first thing we come up with is comfortable. The next is growth.

8) Know that you will get an outcome from any action, so measuring just that does not tell you anything about the value you bring

9) If the words “I don’t know” are the end of the conversation for you, then you can be sure you are the sufferer of this bias.

10) Most importantly, change all the rules, and challenge all the rules, not to be difficult, but because you only get better by making others around you better.

These may seem like abstract general concepts and not directly related to your business or your day to day job, but the reality is that these are the actions that should define success there far more then the outside world. Growth is the goal, not the status quo, and as such we need to make change and going out of our comfort zones the priority, not re-wording past actions as new in order to convince others or yourself you have changed. Take others past their comfort zone and they will take you past your own. Keep getting better, and always know that you are never done and that you do not have the “correct” answer. Keep searching, and always question those around you, and you will always be vigilant against falling into the wrong end of Dunning – Kruger.

Testing can be the ultimate expression of this, you are free to test things far past your current comfort zone. You are free to not validate tired ideas but to explore and discover in a rational and predetermined way the actual value of things, not just the perceived value. In order to do this though, you must fundamentally want and prepare to discover these things. The greatest problem with most test programs is they never enable themselves to find out they are wrong, but instead focus on proving someone right.

The nice part is that just because you or someone you know suffers from Dunning – Kruger, it does not mean they always will. Every person you meet thinks they are doing the right thing, even when they are not. Change the conversation to the end goal, and talk about all the options that are in front of you, and you get past the egos that keep conversations from truly moving forward. Take the time to talk and to challenge people, and do not trust anyone that does not challenge you. You have many impartial tools that allow you to measure things and to work with others, but these tools only work when we use them in an unbiased manner, not to tell us what we want to hear.


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