Why we are unaware that we lack the skill to tell how unskilled and unaware we are


Somewhat off-topic, but:

In the case of singing, you might get all the way to an audition on X-Factor on national television before someone finally provides you with an accurate appraisal. Dunning says that the shock that some people feel when Simon Cowell cruelly explains to them that they suck is often the result of living for years in an environment filled with mediocrity enablers. Friends and family, peers and coworkers, they don’t want to be mean or impolite. They encourage you to keep going until you end up in front of millions reeling from your first experience with honest feedback.

A shrivel-souled marketeer who gets off on belittling people is not “honest feedback.” Please do not confuse the two.


A quick read would lead one to the conclusion that depression comes from seeing the world as it really is. That would square with my experience. Why are all these people so happy? Is it some kind of trick?


It is.


‘Nescience’ has the same origin as the word ‘nice’ - I thought everyone knew that?! (pun intended)

I’ve always liked how this little poem nails it completely:

“See the happy moron,
He doesn’t give a damn,
I wish I were a moron,
My God! perhaps I am!”


The film maker Errol Morris wrote a series of brilliant pieces in the NY TImes a couple of years ago on this, what he termed “anosognosia,” or the condition of not understanding that you have a condition. Well worth reading if you’re at all interested in how self-delusion rules our lives.

Are you sure about being unsure about one’s ignorance? I’m almost always acutely aware of my ignorance and shortcomings. Of course, it is quite an effort for me to get out of bed early in the mornings these days…

The “Dunning-Kruger effect” seems to be referenced a lot lately in the blogosphere. I am sure that it is real, but I am MORE concerned about the opposite problem: people becoming paralyzed from taking action/risks because of the fear of being judged “incompetent”.

To develop any skill, you have to start as a beginner, make mistakes and take some level risk by jumping into the unknown-- yes, as an “incompetent”. Many folks don’t even attempt new and challenging things simply because they’re afraid of failure (of incompetence). I think that bringing up the Dunning-Kruger effect makes even more people think twice about embarking on something new.

To put it another way, which is worse: starting something and being incompetent at it, or, not starting anything at all?


Basically, negative bias is more applicable to reality than positive bias.

Speaking of negativity, every episode of this series seems to be some variaton of “you probably think you´re good at something, have some kind of talent, are somewhat intelligent, nice, lovable or anything else that could be interpreted as a positive characteristic, but you´re not, because everyone sucks at everything and everything sucks. You are also stupid. It´s science.”

At the same time, I can´t really argue with that view. Except for myself of course.

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But if we are now aware that we are unaware that we lack the skill to tell how unskilled and unaware we are, don’t we now have the skill to to tell how unskilled and unaware we are, so we are now more skilled and aware as to how unskilled and unaware we are?


Dunning’s insight is that we are neither wholly competent nor incompetent, but instead have blind spots that we can’t see or know about. Sometimes it’s because these areas of incompetency have been inadvertently rewarded (e.g., you guessed right, and now believe you can predict the future). Sometimes it’s because these areas have never been tested, or never raised outside of a circle of people with similar views or opinions or a general unwillingness to tell you the truth.

So you can become aware that blind spots exist, but you cannot tell whether a particular area where you believe yourself to be competent is in fact a blind spot to you. That’s DKE. To find your blind spots you need honest feedback from outside your skull: by definition, it’s not something you can reason your way out of on your own.

I think the most common self delusion is the belief among generic codependent people (raised in the stereotypical home full of abuse, addiction, abandonment) that they have a extra degree of understanding of other people. Of course, these are the same people that swear they will never marry a drunk, then marry someone that is practically a clone of their drunk parent. They are uniquely gullible in being drawn in by addicts and abusers and flounder completely when dealing with people who decent upbringings, but they remain convinced they have special telepathic powers.

There’s a cartoon somewhere where god argues himself out of existence, maybe somebody else can dig it up.

Anyway, If seeing things as they really are is maladaptive, Then yes, its a trick. Like the coyote and the Road Runner walking off of a cliff, the coyote only falls because he looks down.

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Not a big deal actually, you usually need reasons to do something and no reasons to do nothing at all. reasoning yourself out of trying something is just the flip side of having no reasons to do it in the first place.

Failing to try because of fear? I cant help you there. Failing to try because you won’t be good? That’s the Dunning Kruger effect right there isn’t it?

What’s interesting is that there’s also the exact opposite effect, in which people who are highly skilled consistently underrate their own abilities, as they become good enough to see where they could improve, and that becomes all they can see.
It’s almost a rule amongst artists (at least those not suffering the above effect)


Works for scientists and engineers too.
Let your work do most of the talking. It’s more objective than anything you can say about yourself.


I dunno about a cartoon, but you might be thinking of a passage from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

A nice example: almost everybody can sing - but very few people think they can sing, at least in America. Old ladies in church regularly praise my singing voice, but I’m just loud and on-key. It’s really not complicated at all. The problem is that people imagine they’re onstage at Carnegie Hall, and everybody else is from the New York Times.


Loud is the easy part. The “on key” part is what deserves praise.


Listening to this podcast was painful to me. I am already riddled with self doubt about skills that I’m pretty sure I really am good at, and this just made me question myself all over again. I don’t know how we can ever truly get feedback on what we do.

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