Josh Billings once said, “it ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
These days political discourse, media, the internet, and millions of private conversations fall into the last part of that quote. People are acting on things they know for sure but which just ain’t true. Even worse, many are in positions where their acting on things that are incorrect leads to bad results not only for them but also for the rest of us. And, yes, this is happening in your organization.
At Cornell University psychologists David Dunning, Stav Atir, and Emily Rosenzweig spend a lot of time researching the phenomenon of why those with the least knowledge are often the most confident in their ideas about things they know nothing about. It turns out that incompetent people…those with the least knowledge and expertise about a subject…cannot recognize how incompetent they are.
This is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect as it was first documented in research David Dunning and Justin Kruger published in 1999 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. When you think about it, it makes sense. After all, as Dunning says “for poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack.”
While this winds up being an ongoing joke in the Lie Witness News segment of the late night show Jimmie Kimmel Live, the effect on your organization is no laughing matter. Poor performers exhibiting the Dunning-Kruger Effect will have absolute confidence in the totally wrong decisions they make. It will never occur to them to get advice or second opinions before making decisions that can lead to disastrous results.
My guess is as you read this most of you are recalling things that people in your organization have done that to you, with greater knowledge in the area, were inconceivable. Those of you with children who have just gotten their drivers licenses live if fear of this every day. The brand new driver is totally secure in their complete ability to drive while you hope they survive accident free long enough to actually gain the expertise to be a competent driver.
How can we recognize our own ignorance? How can we address the problem in others? It’s not easy.
First off, practice saying “I don’t know.” These seem to be among the hardest words for most people to say. Not only does saying these words lead to gathering ideas from others, some of whom might just have the necessary knowledge, but it also leads others to understand that it’s okay not to know everything. No one does.
Test everything. Think about how your idea might be incorrect. Think about what else you might do. Think about how your idea can lead to failure. Consider the down side of you decisions. Keep your internal devil’s advocate sitting on your shoulder.
Ask other people their thoughts on the subject. They might have just as many misconceptions as you but the process of discussion can clear up lots of things. At the very least, it might lead to the decision to go find an actual expert in the topic and get their opinion before acting on misconception rather than accurate information.
Be aware that we all suffer from Dunning-Kruger Effect to some degree. It’s hard not to. We all have beliefs not based in fact that come from our families, culture, religion, poor education, screaming talking heads, self defined internet experts, and lots of other places.
Fight back. End the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
Read the article by David Dunning that got me thinking about this: We Are All Confident Idiots.