The Dunning-Kruger Effect: Why I Still Believe Ignorance is Bliss..

Dunning-Kruger-EffectA friend of mine posted an article on this a while ago, a year or so maybe, and while I found it interesting I admit I was also puzzled. I’m the kind of person who stands in line at Tesco’s, breaking the monotony by imagining what it would be like to work there and promptly breaks out in cold sweats. Those tills look confusing, despite my university degree, and that beeping – one loud long beep, all eyes swivelling to me… I have nightmares about that.

So I was intrigued to understand more, but unfortunately I lost the original post, couldn’t remember the name and my friend couldn’t either. No one else had heard of it. As such I put it out my head.

All of a sudden it seems to be everywhere. The effect no one knew about is suddenly the effect everyone is posting about.

Cribbed from Wikipedia:

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes

Or as Shakespeare put it.. The fool thinks himself wise while the wiseman knows himself to be a fool..

While it would be really easy to just accept this – by their reckoning I am a wiseman 🙂 – I think what the study reveals is a little more complex than the quote above indicates. I hope so anyway, even if that does seem to be what people have latched on to. The easy digestible truism.

What actually interests me more than the study itself is the interest generated by the study, specifically within writing circles, and the sheer delight some seem to feel as they post it, most it has to be said with the presumption that it doesn’t apply to them. Always interests me to see how differently the same thing can be interpreted.

One particular blogger used it to illustrate his post on how bad most new novels are. A man, let us be clear, who had never written a book, whose advice to the author consisted off.. can you guess? yip… remove adverbs, don’t repeat words too often..monkeytype

He’s not alone though. Most of those advising writers on how to do their job have not written a novel, certainly not a best seller. On #askagent on twitter, on personal blogs, agents are extremely vocal about what they want to see and I am not talking about genre preference, but sentence structure, word choice and a whole host of other basic elements. One quite famous agent blogger refuses to read sentences which open with dependent clauses. They are also vocal about the ‘cadence’ of good writing and individual voices. I wonder if they are aware of how contradictory their advice is?

Interesting when you consider these to be the conclusions of the study

1.tend to overestimate their own level of skill;
2.fail to recognize genuine skill in others;                                                  

3.fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy;
4.recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they are exposed to training for that skill. (this one seems a little obvious!)

They tested for humour.. How do you test for humour?? – Sorry, back to my point.. Everyone has also latched upon the second part of the truism – the idea that the wise underestimate themselves, however Dunning and Kruger actually identified this as an overestimation of other’s ability. So what does that mean for all those writers constantly correcting other’s grammar? I knew one wannabe, very educated by his own estimation, who loved to correct people on the distinction between its and it’s. Never once simply said, you missed an apostrophe. Another recently went into a rant after seeing then used in place of than. Again it never seemed to occur to him that it was a simple typo. None of these examples were even in books, just random posts on the net.

I think that for me what it really illustrates is that most people don’t think of themselves as idiots, regardless of how much training they have had. They presume themselves to be good enough and that seems a good thing, no? None of those in the top percentile considered themselves fools, less than they were, slightly yes, but not fools. I reckon confidence is an evolutionary tool. If we think too long about how hard everything is or how low we might sit on the competence scale, we’d never do anything. I also exist as proof of this. Lastly, but not leastly, it shows that there is no substitute for experience. Maybe it should be mandatory for all critics to write a book before they get to pass judgement!

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