Article by Carlos Po

Late November last year, 22-year old Becca Campbell and her boyfriend bought a gun to prepare themselves for unrest and riots as a result of the final verdict of the Ferguson trials. During the drive back home, she waved the gun around in the air and claimed she was “ready for Ferguson.” Campbell’s boyfriend, who was driving, ducked to avoid the gun but ended up rear-ending another car, causing the gun to go off and hit Campbell in the head. Although she was rushed to a hospital, Campbell unfortunately died.

We are often tempted, when we chance upon stories like these, to think that we are above such stupid feats of overconfidence. However, we do not realize that such behaviour does creep into everything we do – albeit to a lesser extent. This phenomenon is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Simply put, the unskilled lack the skill to accurately evaluate their skills resulting in an illusory superiority complex. In Campbell’s story, what probably occurred was a severe overestimation of skill in handling firearms. However, not all examples of the effect are as dramatic.

Take climate change deniers for instance. Global warming has been more or less confirmed by esteemed scientists around the world, but the actual scientific data that supports this is often incomprehensible and uninteresting to the layman. But some of these laymen have the audacity to render their inability to comprehend as an inherent weakness of the data itself thereby giving themselves a foothold to vehemently deny the data and continue believing that they know much more about environmental science than actual environmental scientists.

How does this fit into your own life? You might think you’re a bit above average – maybe in terms of intelligence or looks – and while perfectly normal, the consequences of this cognitive bias and illusory superiority can be more devastating depending on the context and the stakes. How many times have you assumed you’re adequately prepared for a test only for the test to come around and leave you blank because the material does not look like anything you studied? This is an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect at work. Because you may have assumed there was less work than there actually was, you walked into the test setting feeling confident about your odds although there may have been an entire concept you did not study at all.

So what is the best way to avoid the Dunning-Kruger effect from taking control of your life? As the effect stems primarily from the inability to accurately self-evaluate your abilities, a simple way to get over the worst effects is to constantly surround yourself with people who are more competent than you so you can receive accurate evaluations of your own skill. As the saying goes, “If you’re the smartest person in the room, find another room.” For a student, this could be as simple as sitting closer to those who you know are more skilled. And while knowing the whole truth about your competence isn’t always a pleasant experience, a good reality check once in a while is what we all need to stay grounded.

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