Taking a Look at the Dunning-Kruger Effect
Last updated: Wednesday May 5th, 2021
Bit of a 180, huh? A very drastic change from the last blog, but it's fine to give into caprice. Today I'm going to be looking at an interesting hypothesis called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which shows a theoretical relationship between confidence and knowledge.
Let's Take a Look at the Journey
Peak of "Mount Stupid" - "I Know"
When I was about eight years old, my response to almost everything was, "I know." Of course, I only knew really trivial things (I was still eight after all). If you needed to find someone, or you had lost something, all you needed to do was ask me because I knew. In reality, I wouldn't have been able to tell you I always just acted as if I knew. My dad often saw through me and knew I had no clue whatsoever, but I just kept on saying, "I know."
That silly anecdote is kind of like the Peak of "Mount Stupid." It's where everyone starts on their journey of knowledge about some topic, (technically it's the origin, but you get the idea). We start very naively, believing we've reached Mount Everest when in reality, we're falling off the cliff. And it makes sense. Since we know very little, we don't understand how complex the topic we're approaching is. Therefore, we believe that we understand everything there is to know, having barely scratched the surface. Eventually, common sense prevails, or someone (like my dad) tells you there's more to learn. And so we take a huge tumble and fall into the valley. To make this easier to understand, here's a Jetpunk example:
"And Cyprus is not a part of Asia. Please fix..."
"I completely agree. Cyprus is an EU member so clear both Cyprus and the EU consider it to be part of Europe."
These are actual quotes. And this isn't to shame these people or claim that they're stupid. However, making a black and white statement like this isn't helpful, even though it is easy. And after making these statements, these two people didn't even engage others who decided to debate where Cyprus was. They just made their comments and left it at that. I guess we can call it the Peak of "Mount Jetpunk." Immediately assume you're correct, only argue one side, give no constructive criticism (while calling for the quiz maker to "fix their quiz"), and fail to engage others. Hopefully, they didn't hurt themselves on the drop.
Valley of Despair - Rock Bottom
Hopefully, you didn't hurt yourself on the way down either. Looking at the graph, the drop from the Peak of "Mount Stupid" (or "Mount Jetpunk") is quite steep. As you can tell, the Valley of Despair is the lowest point in both knowledge and confidence. I think people make the big fall from the peak to the valley when they accept that they know very little about the topic they're approaching. Like the last article, I spoke to my dad before writing, and he told me about a saying he used while growing up:
"A child's machete is sharpest in the morning."
To explain, my dad grew up in Cameroon, and he explained that people would often use machetes/blades to cut the grass. In the morning, the children would come out, swing very heavily, cut a lot of grass, and ultimately tire themselves out. So by the time noon rolled around, they were tired, and production dropped. That's sort of like our journey up to this point. We have an argument which we believe to be true, come out swinging, and then take a tumble once we realize it may have some major holes. Here's another Jetpunk example in the Cyprus theme once again:
"You guys realize that you've only addressed political borders, right? There's more than one way to define a border."
"Wait, so then what's the whole point? You're telling me that there are other ways to define borders, which I didn't even consider. I guess there's not really a point in arguing this anymore, or at least I don't see a point."
Those quotes were created by me, which is why they're cheesy. But the point still stands. When we dive deeper into studying a topic, it's easy to realize you understand very little and give up. But there's a long way to go, and you know what they say. Once you hit rock bottom...
Slope of Enlightenment - The Only Way is Up
The only way is up. So we've peaked (albeit prematurely), and we've fallen. But that leaves only one direction to go, and that's up. So that's how one begins their journey on the Slope of Enlightenment. There's no point in trying to become more knowledgeable if you're going to give up at the first sight of adversity. I mean, do athletes give up when they concede? (Momentum says they would, but that's a whole other story). So this is the point where you do a little bit of reading, ask gurus, and most importantly, start to revise your initial argument. That's why the slope is so long. It takes a long time to understand the holes in your argument. It also takes humility to understand that you were being narrow-minded and may have been wrong. Even in my most knowledgeable topic, soccer, I still don't even understand all the tactical genius that goes into a game. I'll always listen to people explain the role of a trequarista in a 4-2-3-1. Asking around and refining your argument is always important. Let's go back to our Cyprus example:
"Actually, we need some consensus. Tell me about those other kinds of borders."
Again, I wrote this quote, so it's still cheesy, but our character is learning. There's an understanding of depth and complexity within the subject, and therefore, the argument also becomes more deep and complex. And it's not some fake complexity in an attempt to sound smart. It's a complexity that addresses points that were initially ignored the first time.
Plateau of Sustainability - Nuance, Nuance, Nuance
So here we are. I guess you could say we've reached the summit, the actual summit. Otherwise known as the Plateau of Sustainability. With a state of confidence and knowledge, we understand the nuances of the topic and can develop arguments that address these layers. And as much as we would love to win the argument, I think the beauty of this plateau is that we understand that we need to reach a consensus. Yes, this seems counterintuitive, but I'll explain with the Cyrpus debate:
"Alright, I think that this debate boils down to our understanding of borders. There's really nothing to say that there's a "right" way to define a border, so we should set what we believe to be a reasonable definition, and then we can decide."
This one statement is so much further along on the curve than saying, "Cyprus is in Asia, fix your quiz..." Why? Because now they can argue about Cyprus' location without worrying about semantics and other detractors. That's the problem with all these other stages. We focus on the things that don't really matter. People at the Peak of "Mount Stupid" seemingly don't understand nuance and thus are hyper-focused on a single argument; they never even get to the complex stuff. At the Valley of Despair, we don't even try. On the Slope of Enlightenment, we're getting closer, but we can still make tweaks to our arguments. With everything defined, both parties can start arguing while recognizing the nuances of the topic and both sides.
Conclusion - Understanding Where We're at and How to Get There
So how do we understand where we're at? Here are some things to consider.
1.It's not about age
Even though I referred to my age as an analogy for the Peak of "Mount Stupid," this graph isn't about age. You don't have to be the stereotypical wise old man/woman to reach the plateau. In the same way, not all young people are brash and foolish. All you need to do is be willing to hear and consider all sides of an argument.
2. What topic?
If it's astrophysics, I'm at the origin. If it's songs on the Spotify playlist "Biggest Hits of All Time," then we're looking pretty comfortably at the plateau. Obviously, the topic at hand is important to your position on the graph. (FYI: If it's Jetpunk, I think I'm in the Valley, but closer to the Slope than the Peak).
3. It's not a race
We don't need to rush to get to the plateau. These things take time. In fact, I think it's fun to be able to soak in all the information that you can and take the long route. It may take you two months and another person two years, but you'll still end up in the same place.
4. Why the Plateau is so important
Earlier in the blog, I mentioned getting caught up on semantics. On a broader and social scale, I feel this to be the reason that social reform can stagnate. I think that people willingly choose to ignore the fall from the Peak (either because they aren't ready yet or don't care about societal/self progression), and we stall because of it. So we end up in a situation in which we're just reinforcing the polarizing arguments that have been made countless times. It seems like our attention is often diverted towards things that aren't the issue we should be discussing (even though they may still be somewhat important). The Plateau sets the boundaries, so then we can really focus on the problem at hand.
But who am I kidding? It's just a debate about Cyprus on Jetpunk.
Once again, I hope you enjoyed my rant, I hope I didn't come off as too condescending, and I hope that we can engage in good discourse about this topic. Until the next one, thanks, and take care.