How to Use The Dunning-Kruger Effect to Your Advantage

Sometimes delusions can be a good thing

Photo by Clark Young on Unsplash

Have you ever felt you were getting good at something despite not haven’t invested a lot of time and effort? That it wasn’t that hard? That you were a natural?

You probably were a victim of the Dunning-Kruger Effect (DKE), a cognitive bias in which people with low ability overestimate their level of proficiency.

Or put it more crudely: Stupid people don’t realize they are stupid.

I have fallen for DKE a number of times. It happens when you underestimate how difficult the task at hand is. It’s a case of “You don’t know what you don’t know”

The problem is, some people get stuck at this delusional level for life, making the same mistakes over again while being oblivious to it.

This graph shows the DKE curve and its evolution over time.

Image from www.trainingpeaks.com

At the beginning stages of learning, confidence shots through the roof, despite the fact your actual proficiency level is close to zero. Then, reality kicks in and your confidence drops well below the peak. Paradoxically, at the bottom of the curve, you are quite experienced and proficient yet, you are not confident at all. Eventually, you keep getting better and your confidence recovers to the levels of the beginning.

Let’s say you decide to take up tennis. You take a few lessons, you play with some beginners and you think “I’m a natural” “This is not hard at all”. You continue your practice, become cocky, and then decide to challenge better players. Then is when you realize you know nothing, get depressed, and think you’ll never master it. But you don’t quit, you keep improving and after some time you start building up confidence in your ability once again.

DKE has been presented as a cautionary tale of our lack of awareness and our inability to judge our progress. The message is: You think you got this, but you don’t…at all.

Fair enough, but I think DKE could be used as a motivational tool, to improve faster and to gather momentum.

It’s thanks to that initial delusion that you don’t quit at the early stages and manage to invest time and effort in something out of your depth.

I’m sure I have used DKE to carry me to the next level when learning difficult skills. By the time I realize I’m not so good, I’m far too invested to quit.

Confidence is vital to achieving your goals, even if it’s delusional.

Entrepreneurs, athletes, and adventurers need a high level of confidence in their abilities to go beyond their limits. The illusion of superiority can help with that.

The impostor syndrome

Most people err on the side of caution. We lack confidence in our abilities even when we shouldn’t. This is called the Impostor syndrome (IS) — the feeling of inadequacy despite past evidence of success.

If DKE is overconfidence, IS is underconfidence.

IS could well be the bottom of the curve in the previous graph — the “know nothing” point.

When Kennedy announced the space race to the moon, NASA scientists were taken aback. They knew that promise wasn’t achievable. Yet, they managed. (Yes, they did. Don’t believe those conspiracy theories)

It could be argued that Kennedy suffered from DKE and that delusion ended up becoming a reality. Aim for the stars, even if you fail and you’ll reach the moon.

Ways to benefit from DKE

  • Confidence. DKE increases your confidence and makes you accept challenges despite not being ready. This pushes you out of your comfort zone and makes you improve faster.
  • Motivation. DKE gives you the motivation to pursue your goals and stop you from quitting in the early stages.
  • Momentum. Motivation will help you gather momentum which will take you to the next level.
  • Sunk cost fallacy. When you are invested in a project is harder to quit because you don’t want to lose all your time investment.
  • Habit. After the initial period, you would have developed a habit and it will be easier to continue than to quit.
  • Feel good factor. DKE makes you feel good about yourself.

Overconfidence is good

Almost every achievement in history has been possible thanks to overconfidence. The discovery of America, the landing on the moon, or the invention of aviation were unrealistic at the time and only became a reality thanks to overconfident people.

Overconfidence can also be dangerous, but providing your life or anyone else’s is not in danger, it’s worth having a go. What’s the worse that can happen? (Famous last words)

All the experts thought Elon Musk was delusional, but they’ve been proved wrong over and over again.

The dangers of DKE

The Pygmalion effect

The Pygmalion effect is a psychological phenomenon by which high expectations lead to improved performance. These expectations come usually from others, but they could also come from us and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It could be argued that Donald Trump is a DKE victim. He is the target of ridicule and criticism by most of us and yet, he has achieved a number of remarkable achievements against all odds.

DKE might be ignorance, but sometimes ignorance is bliss.

Conclusion

Every time you start learning something new, you’ll fall victim to DKE.

Embrace it, make the most of it and don’t hold back.

Even if others make fun of you, squeeze that delusional confidence to the max. What do they know anyway?

By the time it starts wearing off, you’d have built a habit and gather momentum. Through grit, you’ll be able to cross the low confident valley. Feel like an impostor if you may, but still keep at it until you reach the real peak of the mountain.

If you decide to quit, make sure you do it for the right reasons, not due to low confidence. Remember, your mind is very feeble and not reliable when judging reality.

Make decisions only when your mind is fresh and not under pressure, then stick to those decisions till the end.

If Christopher Columbus was stupid enough to cross the Atlantic, maybe being stupid is not such a bad thing after all.

Student of life. Trying to make sense of it all, be happy and help others achieve their dreams. Join me at: albertotheauthor@gmail.com

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