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Confidence in Ignorance

After listening to David McRaney’s interview of David Dunning about the Dunning-Kruger Effect, I had to go back and read some of the original research on the subject. It fits into the standard model of decision making heuristics that many of you will be familiar with, but this is a pretty extreme example. And the examples they talk about are pretty funny. Or perhaps not so funny since they are true.

The basic idea of the Dunning-Kruger Effect is that when you are completely ignorant about a subject, you don’t notice the feedback that tells you that you are wrong because you are looking at the wrong cues. So not only do you stay ignorant, but without any negative feedback you gain confidence that you are correct. Complete ignorance leads to even greater confidence than actual expertise – because as we know, experts are only experts because they recognize how much they don’t know. Ignorance doesn’t provide this wisdom.

So here are some of the examples.

  • After taking a test, they asked college students how confident they were that they did well. The students reporting the highest confidence were the ones who got 100% correct and the one who got 0% correct.
  • People rated their knowledge of correct English grammar. The people reporting the highest confidence were the ones who knew the least.
  • They asked chess and bridge players how good they were. The ones with the most confidence were the actual masters, followed closely by the least novices.
  • People who had recently filed financial bankruptcy had the highest reported self-ratings of their financial knowledge.
  • Students who took a Driver’s Ed course had the highest risk of crashing. Apparently the fact that they took the course increased their perceived ability but they had not actually learned anything useful.

My Take

OK, this might be funny as an EID article, but it can lead to some severe problems in the field. We don’t want people getting into car crashes, declaring bankruptcy, failing tests. Or my pet peeve, using “less” when they should be using “fewer” and “healthy” when they should be using “healthful.”

So what do we do about it? Dunning has some good advice. Perhaps the training that people need is how to look for error feedback when they don’t know what to look for. Or a better appreciation for how ignorant about subjects they really are, and how risk prone this leaves them. And the worst thing to do is to give them some facts that they can quickly forget, misuse, or ignore. I think this is some good advice and I will accept my own ignorance and accept it from an expert.

Your Turn

How about you? Do you have some good examples from your own research or practice? The funnier the better when it comes to sharing stories. Or do you have some good advice for how to overcome it? Either as an individual or as a trainer? Or perhaps as a parent or employer?

Image credit: Giulia Forsythe

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