Daily Dojo

Dunning–Kruger Effect

In a discussion thread over at Wordplayer a reference was made to Dunning–Kruger effect which lit a light in my brain, lemme tell you, because while I knew what it was, I never knew there was a name for it or even a study on it.

Here’s the brief description …

“The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which “people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it”.[1] The unskilled therefore suffer from illusory superiority, rating their own ability as above average, much higher than actuality; by contrast the highly skilled underrate their abilities, suffering from illusory inferiority. This leads to a perverse result where less competent people will rate their own ability higher than relatively more competent people. It also explains why actual competence may weaken self-confidence because competent individuals falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. “Thus, the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.”[1]”

In layman’s terms, people who don’t really know what they’re doing tend to believe that they’re much better at it than they actually are … and people who do know what they’re doing tend to think they’re not as good as they actually are.

In writing we see this a lot … a person’s first play, screenplay, novel … it’s the most awesome thing ever, right? My first thing, I thought it was the greatest ever. And then you write ten more screenplays, look back at that first script you wrote years ago, and go … Ugh … what the hell what I thinking?

And it may not be that it was bad … you just didn’t know, or couldn’t tell, what didn’t work about it back then. You didn’t have the tools to recognize what you needed to.

It’s really about what you don’t know, in a sense … and what I like about the article, there’s a cognitive recognition that needs to take place … in other words, a beginner can be told what they need to know, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll know it.

As an example … in poker, the experts say that position is everything (position is the order in which a person gets to bet … being able to bet last is having position) … Doyle Brunson as said that if he could bet position (last) every time, it wouldn’t matter what his cards were, he’d win every time.

I read that a couple years ago, understood it on a certain level (I get what he meant) but I didn’t really KNOW it until I’d played hundreds of games (if not more) am I even beginning to understand what position means (it’s everything, really).

In the very real sense, you cannot describe the taste of sugar for someone who’d never tasted it … they have to taste it.

Some experiences are like that, too.

Some beginners do stumble into success, based on their natural talent and, of course, confidence in their abilities … anyone can flop a full house and win big pot … but they won’t last until the end of a tournament if they don’t figure out how it all is supposed to work.

And let’s also posit that, as it says in the article, there are those who don’t understand good work when they see it, even though it may be their job … every playwright and screenwriter has dealt with this, a producer or a director who just can’t tell good writing from bad, good work from terrible (I mean, somebody gave a greenlight to the Hottie and the Nottie, right?) and great ideas from really sucky ones.

I’ve suffered mightily as a playwright from a director who obviously was under the influence of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

It can be maddening … it’s like trying to explain something in Swedish to someone who doesn’t speak the language, doesn’t appear interested in Swedish and, worse yet, is insisting to you that they’re actually fluent in Swedish.

But the nice thing is, now I know what it was … I don’t have a solution, per se, but the nice thing is, it’s good to know there’s a name for this type of situation.

And to keep at it, eventually a writer finds those who get it, we all have a tribe, it’s just a matter of finding them.

4 Responses to “ Dunning–Kruger Effect”

  1. Alex Says:

    This was an exceptionally articulate post that went right to the heart of the dilemma of the incompetent. The problem too is that no matter how expert you become at your craft and good at recognizing its quality or lack thereof you can never shake the suspicion that you’re even more accurate than pathologically insecure people in thinking your stuff is shit. On the other hand, as you imply, years and years of working at your craft does hone your “shit meter” pretty well. How does one escape the shackles of one’s own subjective judgment, which even if honed this way, can still be bad? I’m getting dizzy from rereading what I just wrote…

  2. Joshua James Says:

    i know man, right? It’s crazy, because when I think back to five years ago, and all I didn’t know then … I then begin to wonder, shit, what don’t I know now that I’m gonna be shaking my head about five years from now?


  3. KJB Says:

    So, my perpetual belief that nothing I write is good enough is actually a positive sign? Good to know. :)

  4. Atlanta Says:

    Hi Joshua, I always enjoy your GITS comments, and just discovered your blog, wonderful stuff, thanks for sharing your savvy and wit.

    I’m fascinated by stuff like DKE, and one fun site to visit now and again, in case you haven’t already discovered it, for similar smart insights, is You Are Not So Smart, and he’s even talked about the Dunning-Kruger effect: http://youarenotsosmart.com/2010/05/11/the-dunning-kruger-effect/

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