A number of years ago a close friend of mine, who was an executive at a public company with a large team reporting to him, was having a beer with his boss, who was the COO of the corporation. My friend, in a moment of self-doubt and honesty, said to the boss: “I worry every morning that people are going to look at my title and responsibilities and realize that I’m a fraud”, to which the COO, referring to his own self-doubt, said “Tell me about it”.
I enjoy that story because it reminds me of the many self-doubts I’ve had over the years, which brings us something that psychologists call the Dunning-Kruger effect. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias that causes less competent people to overestimate their competence, and competent people to overestimate everyone else around them. Although their work was published at the end of the 20th century, many before them made similar observations, such as this one from Charles Darwin: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”.
So it is a daily irony that often it is those who are the most skilled and competent that are plagued most by self-doubt. Here are my takeaways:
- Although we might view our managers as confident and knowledgeable, they are likely aware of what they don’t know. This is why initiative is so highly valued as a behavior in most organizations.
- Although we might all nod knowingly when we hear about the D-K effect, I suspect we may be falling into the very trap it warns of. Far more than 50% of all drivers rate their driving skills as above average. Like the Sirens in Homer’s Odyssey, biases are seductive and difficult to recognize.
- In our positive reinforcement culture, we may unwittingly be imprisoning people in self-reinforcing cycles of incompetence. I am particularly concerned about this in terms of young people, who may carry an over-estimation of their competence in a certain area throughout their life simply because a nearby adult didn’t coach them at the right moment.
One last story: I first heard about the Dunning-Kruger effect in the context of business writing (where people who are less competent writers tend to over-estimate the quality of their writing).
A couple weeks ago, I was under deadline pressure to get a column into a newspaper, so I hurriedly wrote 800 words, did a quick edit, and sent it off before I boarded a flight. I did not get a chance to run it past my personal editor (my brilliant English major wife). Despite that, I thought it was pretty good given the speed with which I wrote it, and gave myself a passing grade on the column.
My wife got her first look at the finished product in our Sunday paper that weekend. Her comment after reading the first sentence?
I guess I need to keep working on my writing……