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  • Genine Babakian

Hubris, Thy Name is Dunning-Kruger

For most of my life, I’ve been pestered by what I don’t know. Yet an article in this week’s Washington Post reminds me that perhaps I should view the gaps in my education through rosier glasses. Thank you, Dunning and Kruger.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a (relatively) recently named phenomenon that has existed as long as sentient beings have roamed the earth. Studied by David Dunning and Justin Kruger in the 1990s, it measures what inquisitive minds have known for years: The accumulation of knowledge leads to questions. Or, as Socrates said: “the only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.”

The other side of that coin, however is that the absence of knowledge breeds confidence. Perhaps Charles Darwin said it best when he wrote: “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

“Put simply,” Angela Fritz writes in her article, “incompetent people think they know more than they really do, and they tend to be more boastful about it.”

Remind you of anyone?

She, of course, was referring to an extreme case of Dunning-Kruger. The one currently sitting in the White House. The man who needs to read and prepare little, because he claims to know everything already. Indeed, as Fritz reports, interest in the Dunning-Kruger effect has enjoyed a resurgence following the 2016 presidential elections. Google searches peaked in May 2017, and remain high.

Yet while Donald Trump considers himself an expert on everything – regardless of his lack of knowledge or experience – surely, we all suffer moments when we delude ourselves into thinking that we know more than we actually do.

Well, I do, anyway. I can remember a job interview I went to many years ago, immediately after which I thought I had done a great job. Spot on with answers. Amiable and strategic. I left that building with undeniable confidence, thinking it was not a matter of “if” I would get the job, but when the offer would come in. It was only thirty minutes later, as I reviewed the conversation in my head, that I realized that it might not have gone as well as I’d first expected. By the time I was across town, I was literally smacking my forehead with my open palm. Repeatedly. Needless to say, no job offer was forthcoming.

Is it better to be ignorant and confident, or to pursue knowledge and accrue doubt? The greatest minds point to the latter. As Albert Einstein famously said: “the more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.”

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