David Dunning, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, has spent much of his career studying the flaws of human thought. This has kept him busy.
You may recognize Dunning's name as half of a psychological phenomenon that is very relevant to the current political spirit: the Dunning-Kruger effect. It is here that weak capacities – say, those who do not respond correctly to the riddles of logic – tend to overestimate their abilities unduly.
Here are the classic conclusions of the original article on the effect in graph form. The underperformers – those in the bottom and second quartile – grossly overestimated their abilities (note also how the best performers have underestimated it).
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
The explanation of the effect is that when we are not good at a task, we do not know enough to accurately assess our ability. So inexperience throws the illusion of expertise.
An obvious example recently used by people to describe the Dunning-Kruger effect is President Donald Trump, whose confidence and braggadocis never give up, despite his low interest in political issues and his understanding. But you do not have to turn to Trump for an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect. You do not even have to watch cable news. Dunning implores us to look for examples of this effect in ourselves.
"The first rule of the Dunning-Kruger club is that you do not know you are a Dunning-Kruger club member," he said in an interview last year. "People are missing that."
"We can take an idea and create a complete and compelling story around it … and that does not necessarily mean it's right"
I recently called Dunning to talk about the virtue of intellectual humility or the ability to recognize that things we believe in could be wrong. This is an essential trait, but rare.
Why? Because our brain is hiding our blind spots. And the Dunning-Kruger effect is an example of the following: We are often more confident than we should about a skill or subject. But at the same time, we often ignore our overconfidence.
So the fundamental question I had for Dunning is, "How should we think about how we think and make it more specific?"
I think his answers contain good advice for navigating a world where lies and misinformation spread wildly and uncomfortable truths are easily ignored.
This interview has been modified for its length and clarity.
How do you describe your work?
I study the psychology underlying human disbelief. Why do people believe things that are not true, or can not be true? So, in general, I study "how can people believe this?"
What raises questions like the Dunning-Kruger effect … is that we really do not know our ignorance. Our ignorance is invisible to us.
What would you like more people to know about the limits of the human spirit?
If there is a psychological principle that people should know better, it is the principle of naive realism. [It means that] Even if your belief in how the world is so convincing or so self-evident, that does not mean it's really the case. [true].
Whenever we come to a conclusion, it seems to me that's the right one. In fact, much of what we see and conclude about the world comes from our brains. Once you keep this in mind, I hope it gives you a break, to think about how you could be wrong or how another person might have a cause. And you may want to listen to them.
Your brain is doing a lot of creative art all the time. There have been some good times to learn in the last two years. [on naive realism].
The first moment conducive to learning was this blue-black / white-gold dress. You look at this dress and damn it, it looks white and golden. And I can not give him the other color. So, it looks like that. But in reality, our brain makes some assumptions before providing an answer. That's us. It's not the world.
"The work concerns [how] when people do not have it, they do not realize they do not have it. "
What I find funny and informative in your work is that people often do not understand the Dunning-Kruger effect and draw the wrong conclusions. Do you see this often?
Yes. The answer is yes.
The work concerns [how] when people do not have it, they do not realize they do not have it. And so the fact that people do not get the job importantly is a delightful irony, but also a tremendous confirmation.
But there are some major problems in people.
The first is that they think it's about their [i.e., others]. That's it, there is those people who are stupid and do not realize that they are stupid.
Now these people can exist, and the work is not about it. It is a phenomenon that visits us all sooner or later. Some of us are a little more flamboyant about it. Some of us are not. But not knowing the extent of your own ignorance is part of the human condition. The problem is that we see it in other people and we do not see it in ourselves.
The first rule of the Dunning-Kruger club is that you do not know that you are a member of the Dunning-Kruger club. People miss that.
Second, over the years, the understanding of the effect in popular culture has shifted from "underperforming overconfidence" to "overconfident beginners". We have just published something in the last year where we have shown that beginners do not start falling prey to the Dunning-Kruger effect, but they will get there very quickly. So, they quickly end up believing that they know how to handle a task when they do not have it yet.
The fact that people often misunderstand your conclusions: does this teach us anything about the limits of the human spirit?
Well, it teaches us both the limits and the genius of human understanding. That is to say, we can take an idea and create around it a complete and convincing story that is coherent, plausible, very logical, interesting, and that does not necessarily mean that it's just . It shows you how good we are at telling stories.
Are there solutions or tools that we can use?
I think some clues come from the work of [University of Pennsylvania psychologist] Philip Tetlock and his "super experts", that is, people who think not in terms of certainty but in terms of probabilities tend to do much better to predict and anticipate what will happen in the future. world than those who think in certainties.
But I think this is just a start.
What you need to do is draw lessons at home and pay more attention to what comes out of your head or mouth.
You do not have to do it all the time, but if the situation is important or if the situation is painful, [take a] free time.
What lessons from your work can help us think in recent years in the American media – this age of "false information", "alternative facts", partisan divisions, etc.?
One of the things that really concerns me is that people do not really distinguish between facts and opinions. So, if you look at Democrats and Republicans right now, they obviously differ in terms of priorities for the country and theories about where to go.
But they also differ in what they think of the country. "Is the economy going well?" "What is the record of the Obama administration?" "Has the stock market increased or fallen?"
These are factual questions. What impresses me in recent years is how many people not only write their opinions, but also their factual beliefs about the world.
I ask people a lot of questions in political polls where I think [they answer they ought to choose] is: "I do not know." And that answer is there for people to give, and they go beyond it.
Do Americans refuse to say "I do not know" to a factual question? Is it in a new study?
This is a recent project. In particular, we asked factual questions about the United States, such as: "Has teenage pregnancy peaked?" Or "What are the financial benefits? form of social security? "
We know the facts and we interview people. In addition to this, we included in the survey incentives designed to make people honest by borrowing certain techniques from the economy.
And basically, what we're getting is that Democrats and Republicans differ tremendously in what they think is actually real about the world.
What I'm trying to understand is … can we really determine whether these beliefs are authentic or not?
We tried to see if we could know if "Birther" [views that Barack Obama was not born in the United States] were authentic. That's when someone says, "Barack Obama was born in Kenya." Does this sound like a real belief? And the answer seems to be yes.
Is there a way to make people more comfortable by saying, "I do not know?"
This is an interesting question because people seem uncomfortable to say "I do not know". This is something we have never managed to get people to do.
I must admit that after 30 years of research, I often think that the right answer to the question I'm asking you [in a survey] is: "I do not know." And people give me an answer [other than “I don’t know”].
How do you get people to say, "I do not know"? I do not know.
Is there a personal consequence to being more humble intellectually? Some of the best journalists I know – and this is completely anecdotal – tend to be a little neurotic. But they do things well. It can not be healthy for everyone, you have to be uncertain all the time.
To get something really right, you must be excessively obsessive and compulsive about it.
Here is the key: the resulting decisions tend to be those that we do not meet often. Like, what houses do we buy? Which people do we marry? Which children do we have? And the decisions that flow from it tend to be those with which we have no experience. That's exactly where we do not know, and that's exactly the kind of situation where we should have an outside lawyer.
For what it's worth, I tend to really trust anxious people.
I agree. I have found that neurotics are so wise in the area where they are neurotic, which has always surprised me.
The areas in which I take the greatest care [are] really motivated by the fact that I think that fate is imminent, with every decision. So let me understand: how am I sentenced? It may not be the healthiest way to approach life.
Is there a healthy way to be skeptical, humble and aware of these cognitive blind spots?
Ask yourself where you could go wrong if the decision is important. Or how can your projects lead to disaster?
Think about it, it's important. Think about what you do not know. That is, check your assumptions.
On a more general level, we deal with many problems or problems because we all do it ourselves. We rely on ourselves. We make decisions as our own island, if you will. And if we consult, discuss, chat with other people, we often learn things or get different points of view that can be very helpful.
An active social life, active social bonds, in many ways, tend to be beneficial to health. Social bonds can also be healthy in terms of information. So it's more at the top, more abstract, if you want. That is, do not try to do it yourself. Do it yourself, that's when you have problems.