Illusions of Competence; When you can’t see it, and others can’t tell you.

I was talking with a student today about the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This effect is a very common and pernicious one, where a person who is quite incompetent at something thinks that he is very good at it; he makes the highly inaccurate assessment because the skills that are necessary to judge one’s own competence are also the skills that are necessary to be good at it. Someone who lacks the skills to be competent at something, then, also lacks the skills to be a good judge of their own competence and usually greatly overestimates it. One look on the internet for people defending discredited or outlandish ideas will show you Dunning-Kruger Effect in action; the lack of knowledge and skill required to analyze someone else’s logic is the same lack that results in a person being unable to analyze their own ideas.

Interestingly, the Dunning-Kruger Effect seems to also result in the impostor syndrome, in which highly competent people tend to underestimate (and be very anxious about) their abilities, perhaps thinking that if they can do it well, everyone else must be able to do it at least as well. This is the Effect operating at the opposite end of the spectrum — the highly competent person becomes less confident in their abilities, as the incompetent person becomes highly confident.

It makes you think twice about judging someone by how confident they seem in their abilities, doesn’t it?

The thing that I find especially interesting is the potential for the Dunning-Kruger Effect and the Confirmation Bias to meet and amplify each other.

The Confirmation Bias is the common human tendency to create their own little echo chamber. That is, once people think they have something right, they stop paying attention to any evidence that they’re wrong, and only see or notice evidence that confirms that they’re right.

So potentially, people may fall into the Dunning-Kruger Effect — they’re terrible at something, but they think they’re really pretty good. But because they’re convinced that they’re pretty good, the Confirmation Bias comes into play, and they refuse to see or acknowledge any evidence that they’re actually not as good as they think they are. Even people saying exactly that, to their faces.

There are quite a few classic texts, from Lao Tsu, to Socrates, to many other philosophers from both East and West who express the sentiment that a wise person has some idea of how much they doesn’t know. That is evidence that these effects and biases have been around for a very long time, but it’s also a hopeful indication that it is possible to step out of or avoid these traps of delusion, at least to some extent.

To help avoid confirmation bias, one of the best tools is to keep trying to disprove anything you think you know, that plays the psychological trick of forcing you to pay attention to potentially contradictory evidence that you would otherwise tend to ignore. For the Dunning-Kruger effect, the best approach is likely to be humble in the first place, and double-check with other people as to how you’re actually doing. That can be a bit painful, as you have to be willing to accept the response that you’re actually not as good as you think you are, but in the end, maintaining illusions of competence does not allow you to learn and grow.

Learning and growing is, of course, one of the key factors in maintaining creative output, growing as an artist and as a person, and living a life that is satisfying and fulfilling. And that’s what we’re all here for, isn’t it?

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