The Dunning-Kruger Effect: We're all Dumber than We Think

The more you learn, the less you know. Lessons from Socrates, Aristotle, and the Dunning-Kruger effect.


As much as it may hurt to admit, we all see ourselves as better than we are. None of us is the main character TikToksays we are, and unfortunately, we fail to extend this inflated sense of worth to other people. Most of us are hyper-critical of others but offer an unwarranted grace to ourselves. Have you ever cussed out other drivers on the road for their mistakes but only offered a measly "oops!" when it's you being the bad driver? This cognitive dissonance was affirmed by multiple philosophic and scientific lessons that taught me that we don't know nearly as much as we think we know and that the more we learn, the less we know.


The difference between wise and ignorant

Have you ever heard of Socrates' life story? I'll give you the shortened version. Way back in ancient Greece, an Athenian went to the oracle of Delphi, a prophetess of the Greek god Apollo, to ask "who is the wisest man in Athens?" The lady declared, "None is wiser than Socrates."


Socrates, who knew very well the limits of his knowledge, found this confusing. How could he be the wisest and at the same time recognize a plethora of things he knew nothing about? He sought to uncover the definition of wisdom. So, he spoke to anyone he could about what they knew. He even spoke to professional "wise men" of Athens, for surely they had more wisdom than he did, that's what they were known for!


But in the end, he was disappointed. Through conversation and some sharp questioning, it was apparent that no one was actually as all-knowing as they claimed. Sure, most people were competent in their own areas of expertise, but they then falsely assumed that their mastery extended to other areas too. Socrates gained many enemies as these conversations brought his counterparts' ignorance to light.


After speaking to as many people as he could, and learning of seemingly endless nuances and topics he never knew that he never knew, Socrates concluded that he was not a very wise man. So then, after all this, what is wisdom? What makes someone wise or ignorant? Again Socrates decided that he was not a wise man, but then, he said, neither is anyone else. His unique advantage lied in the fact that he was aware of his own ignorance while others were not.


The moral of the story: to be wise is to be able to recognize the limits of your knowledge.


The Dunning-Kruger Effect

Enter the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This is a scientifically proven effect that happens to most people. In essence, it demonstrates that you and I are most likely dumber than we think. Allow me to illustrate.

As you can see above, The Dunning-Kruger effect addresses the way we learn and perceive our own level of understanding. When you first begin to learn something, you're so excited about your new knowledge that you overestimate your ability. You think you know a lot more than you actually do.


Then as you dive deeper into a subject, you learn about all the things you don't know. At this point, you realize your overconfidence was unwarranted because what you know is but a drop in the ocean of all there is to know about the subject.


For example, maybe you once knew the mitochondria simply as "the powerhouse of the cell" and that was enough to pass your middle school science class. One might've assumed that was all there was to the mitochondria until you hit high school or college and you learned that it really generates ATP, an energy-carrying molecule, through oxidative phosphorylation... I remember that day in my bio class. It blew my mind that there was so much more to something I thought I had already learned all about.


Life consists of knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns

Aristotle, the student of Socrates' student (his grandpupil if you will), also chimed in on the topic long after Socrates' tragic death. He said, "the more you know, the more you realize you don't know."


I learned this from Steve (ardalis) Smith on his blog, Ardalis. He drew a genius metaphor in his post about The Dunning-Kruger Effect and the relationship between experience and confidence, which I highly recommend.

Model from Steve Smith via Ardalis.com


Steve described knowledge as a growing circle, where everything just outside that circle is something we know that we don't know, and beyond that are the things we don't know that we don't know.

Model from Steve Smith via Ardalis.com


From all this, we can learn to be humble as there are an infinite number of things that we don't even know we don't know. To do so is to practice the wisdom of knowing your own limitations. But similarly, imposter syndrome is another form of being ignorant of your own capabilities. Shoot for the middle of the two extremes!

 

Thanks for reading through! I hope you found this helpful. Just like overconfidence and imposter syndrome, lots of things in life are simply a balancing act of two extremes. I happen to have some great posts about balance which you can find below!

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Hey, thanks for stopping by!

My name is Ariel and I'm super passionate about mental health, self-help, and personal growth...

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