The Least, First

Monte Asbury's blog

The less we know, the better we think we are

with 15 comments

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Image by J Wynia via Flickr
While cruising Can’t See the Forest, I ran into this remarkable article:

The Dunning-Kruger effect is “‘an example of cognitive bias in which “people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.'” They therefore suffer an illusory superiority, rating their own ability as above average.”

Here’s a bit more:

clipped from
[I]n skills as diverse as reading comprehension, operating a motor vehicle, and playing chess or tennis, “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge” […]
[Dunning and Kruger] hypothesized […]

  • Incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their own level of skill.
  • Incompetent individuals fail to recognize genuine skill in others.
  • Incompetent individuals fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy.
  • If they can be trained to substantially improve their own skill level, these individuals can recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill.
  • Kruger and Dunning examined self-assessment of logical reasoning skills, grammatical skills, and humor. After being shown their test scores, the subjects were again asked to estimate their own rank, whereupon the competent group accurately estimated their rank, while the incompetent group still overestimated their own rank […]
    [P]articipants scoring … in the 12th percentile … on tests of humor, grammar, and logic … estimated themselves to be in the 62nd … Meanwhile, people with true knowledge tended to underestimate their competence.

    A follow-up study suggests that grossly incompetent students improve both their skill level and their ability to estimate their class rank only after extensive tutoring in the skills they had previously lacked.

    blog it

    Boy oh boy; we have Pandora’s Box here.

    Some make their case with “I think that … ;” others insist “I don’t think so, I know so“—often to the point of mocking uncertainty.  Yet the former often have the better argument; they don’t have to “know so.”

    Think of places where certainty-covering-questionable-thinking crops up:

    • politicians (“I know how to …”)
    • web conversations (ever see a troll write “I wonder if  …?”)
    • sermons ([blush] How much I once knew!)
    • ratings-driven media personalities (Rush Limbaugh? Bill Maher?)

    “Illusory superiority” looks like a pretty common commodity, eh?

    Should such black and white arguments be yellow flags?

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    Written by Monte

    December 21, 2008 at 4:56 pm

    15 Responses

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    1. Thank you, Tony, for a bright insight. Matter of fact, the first thing that attracted me to Barack Obama was a comment of the pundit David Brooks. Long before the campaign began, Brooks, a conservative, urged Obama to run. In an interview on PBS, he said something like, “The thing about Obama is that when you talk to him, even if he doesn’t agree with you, you come away with a sense that he really heard what you said.”
      Best wishes to you from an icy and very cold part of the US midwest! I’m sure it will be well below 0 degrees F tonight.
      But yesterday it was in the 40s.
      Are you native to FRA/SUI?
      Ah, I read your About, and saw you are from West Midlands. That might well make Geneva seem very cold!


      December 31, 2008 at 9:39 pm

    2. An interesting topic, Monte.
      We see this manifest wherever we look. A good example would be News programmes in the UK, with a bias not just on reporting but excessive speculation after the fact.

      It comes from hearing, but not listening, speaking more and thinking less.

      As it says in Luke 6:45 (part b) – ‘out of the abundance of the heart his (man) mouth speaks’ and Ecclesiastes 5:2 (b part again) ‘Therefore let your words be few’.

      If we speak less and only after thinking carefully, what we say is more likely (not always though) to be more accurate, more factual and have more value to listeners. We have humility to recognise our errors and to admit when we are wrong, we will learn from our mistakes and gain respect in a society which is all about sound and noise, but totally lacking in substance.

      We need wisdom for ourselves and often diplomacy, some firmness and patience when dealing with others in this regard.

      An interesting topic.Thank you.
      From a snowy and very cold part of France and Switzerland, I wish you a warm and truly blessed New Year.


      December 31, 2008 at 11:54 am

    3. Amos – it’s true in preachers, too! The ones who think most deeply are certain of fewer things. Certainty is often make-believe!


      December 29, 2008 at 7:25 pm

    4. I seen this in my own life. The more I learn and explore, the more I realize how little I know. Along the those same lines, I see this a lot in scientists and researchers. I have interacted with some very bright people and it is these people who are the quickest to admit they don’t know or where wrong.


      December 28, 2008 at 2:50 pm

    5. Hi Monte, and Merry Christmas!

      I love this sort of thing, the value of uncertainty. Keats called it Negative Capability. Would that more understood what a blessing an open mind is!


      December 24, 2008 at 12:48 pm

    6. God Bless and Merry Christmas. It is still snowing with 12 inches on ground and more coming down here in Dixon Iowa. I know this for sure it is beautiful and that God is good and I’m sure He will direct. Proverbs: 3 4- 6


      Monte says: Thanks! Sounds gorgeous. God put you in the art museum, that’s for sure! Take a picture and email it to me, if you get a chance.


      December 24, 2008 at 11:00 am

    7. Just to wish you a Merry Christmas!

      Best wishes


      December 23, 2008 at 10:13 pm

      • Many thanks, naj! Your friendship is a treasure to me!


        December 24, 2008 at 12:22 pm

    8. Karen Armstrong talks about this fairly extensively in one of her books. Unfortunately, I don’t recall which! (The battle for God?) At the center of all of the truly horrific things ever done in the name of God, you had a very devout and very CERTAIN human figure. It’s lead to military defeats, mass murder, and untold additional horrors.

      I ABSOLUTELY see statements of black-and-white, oversimplification, unreasonable certainty, lack of humility concerning the will or mind of God, and desire to impose one’s ideas upon others a warning label on any personality.

      But then, I’m not a preacher ;-)>

      Joe Hayes

      December 23, 2008 at 5:25 pm

      • Ah, Joe, good to know that! I’ve been meaning to read some of her writing for some time now – sounds like I’d better get on it!


        December 24, 2008 at 12:23 pm

    9. Hi M,
      One group who have learned to cope with their “Illusory superiority” are weather forecasters. I wonder if they have something there I could learn from? It seems they have learned to give their opinions in terms of %-ages. I wonder if the reason they have learned so well is that their errors in opinion are immediately discovered. Also, they are held accountable immediately by all who have heard them. On the one hand they want to be completely accurate, and on the other hand they know that their job security depends on their being inaccurate. I keep listening to them because I know they are inaccurate!
      When weather is really important I just figure it out for myself. I use the direct inspection technique.
      I am glad to hear about the follow up study that demonstrates Paul’s idea of growth through mind renewing. I would sign up for that class, “How to accurately see myself and others”. Maybe Jr high level would be a place to start?

      Monte says: Aha! It never occurred to me what a marvelous piece of CYA the weather forecasters’ percentage is!
      I was watching Scrubs last night, in which the intern is disgusted because the supervising doc won’t do the intern’s performance review, and tells the intern to do it himself. The intern muscles up the courage to demand that the supervisor do it; the supervisor does.
      And then later, the supervisor completes the review and says (I’m paraphrasing), “You’re doing OK – not great, but OK – for someone who’s completely hung up on what other people think. Did it ever occur to you that maybe I wanted you to develop a little opinion of your performance on your own? Because in the end, it really doesn’t matter what I think, what the Admin thinks, or even what your patients think. In the end, the only person’s opinion you’re really going to have to live with is your own.”
      Ah, Scrubs! Always deeper than it seems.


      December 23, 2008 at 10:31 am

    10. And, unfortunately, what one hears in sermons!


      December 23, 2008 at 10:23 am

    11. That explains a lot of what one sees on the Internet!


      December 23, 2008 at 4:07 am

    12. Thanks, and thanks again for bringing this up. I think it’s going to help me understand some things a little better.


      December 21, 2008 at 8:14 pm

    13. That’s pretty much exactly the point I was driving at, particularly with reference to geopolitics. It applies almost everywhere you look.

      Black and white arguments are indeed yellow flags in my view, and that’s a great way to put it!


      December 21, 2008 at 7:35 pm

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