Are You the Top Gun You Think You Are? Unsafe Perspectives and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

    I can remember my father, an Eastern Airlines captain, saying to me as a young aviator, “The most dangerous time in a pilot’s career is after they get their Commercial license up until about the time they get their ATP.”  I hadn’t given that much thought until recently.  I fondly recall that period of my career.  I was cautious, but I also had a sense of unfounded bravado that I really knew what I was doing.  Looking back, boy was my perspective wrong.

    Lately I have been running across many operators who are not best practices or IS-BAO, are not particularly safe, or are even operating under CFR 14 Part 91 illegally – not because they want to, but because they don’t have the perspective to know any better.  Moreover, their bravado puts them, their companies or owners, and the general public at risk.  Please read on…

    You’re saying, “Hey, that’s not us.”  Research shows, however, if you are in denial you have a high likelihood of overestimating your knowledge.  I challenge you  to see if perhaps your operation is at risk from what’s been called the Dunning-Kruger effect.

    One of the best titles for a scientific paper has to be the Ig Nobel prize winning “Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments“.  The paper compares people’s skill levels to their own assessment of their abilities. In hindsight, the result seems self-evident. Unskilled people lack the skill to rate their own level of competence. This leads to the unfortunate result that unskilled people rate themselves higher than more competent people. The phenomenon is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, named after the paper’s Cornell University authors.

    The abstract of this paper reads, “People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it. Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although their test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd. Several analyses linked this miscalibration to deficits in metacognitive skill, or the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error. Paradoxically, improving the skills of the participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities“.

    Well, if you would look at the above graph, it goes something like this. “You start to live in a fantastic little bubble of how kick-ass you are. Everything is so new, that solving problems is crazy fun and makes you almost euphoric. You get so addicted to solving challenges that it doesn’t matter if they’ve been solved before — you’re developing not to solve an actual problem, but to make yourself feel good.

    It’s times like these when you start to think you can do anything, and anything you write is, by definition, the most awesome stuff ever…………At a certain point, your folly crests. You start getting in over your head more and more, and, frankly, you start maturing as a person, and you realize that there’s more to this discipline that you thought. At this point, what you think you know starts spiraling downward. You start to become aware of the depth of knowledge you haven’t yet tapped.

    If you’re smart, you keep learning, every day. You like to feel stupid, and that pushes you into researching your craft more and more. So, at the same time that your perspective on your skill level gets more and more realistic, you’re actually getting better and better. At a certain point, the two paths cross, and this is where humility kicks in. You go through your day thinking you have so much more to learn, but the fact is, you know more than you think you do. At this point, you start making much better development decisions because you’re slightly underestimating yourself.

    You find yourself more and more humble about what you know. You think you have lot more to learn to do something meaningful. You start thinking that every problem has been solved and it would be better to search on JSTOR for an economic issue rather try to be find one’s own solution.

    Bertrand Russel aptly said, “In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are doubtful.”

    David McRaney puts it well, “Have you ever wondered why people with advanced degrees in climate science or biology don’t get online and debate global warming or evolution? Yet, people without a degree in psychology will write 1,200 words about a psychological bias.

    The less you know about a subject, the less you believe there is to know in total. Only once you have some experience do you start to recognize the breadth and depth you have yet to plunder.”

    He further adds:

    It breaks down like this:  The more skilled you are, the more practice you’ve put in, the more experience you have, the better you can compare yourself to others. As you strive to improve, you begin to better understand where you need work. You start to see the complexity and nuance; you discover masters of your craft and compare yourself to them and see where you are lacking.

    On the other hand, the less skilled you are, the less practice you’ve put in and the fewer experiences you have, the worse you are at comparing yourself to others on certain tasks. Your peers don’t call you out because they know as much as you do, or they don’t want to hurt your feelings. Your narrow advantage over novices leads you to think you are the sh**.”

    Errol Morris, quotes Prof Dunning:

    Donald Rumsfeld gave this speech about “unknown unknowns.” It goes something like this: “There are things we know we know about terrorism. There are things we know we don’t know. And there are things that are unknown unknowns. We don’t know that we don’t know.” He got a lot of grief for that. And I thought, “That’s the smartest and most modest thing I’ve heard in a year.”

    Rumsfeld’s famous “unknown unknowns” quote occurred in a Q&A session at the end of a NATO press conference. A reporter asked him, “Regarding terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, you said something to the effect that the real situation is worse than the facts show…” Rumsfeld replied, “Sure. All of us in this business read intelligence information. And we read it daily and we think about it, and it becomes in our minds essentially what exists. And that’s wrong. It is not what exists.” But what is Rumsfeld saying here? That he can be wrong? That “intelligence information” is not complete? That it has to be viewed critically? Who would argue? Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” seem even less auspicious. Of course, there are known unknowns. I don’t know the melting point of beryllium.

    And I know that I don’t know it. There are a zillion things I don’t know. And I know that I don’t know them. But what about the unknown unknowns? Are they like a scotoma, a blind spot in our field of vision that we are unaware of? I kept wondering if Rumsfeld’s real problem was with the unknown unknowns; or was it instead some variant of self-deception, thinking that you know something that you don’t know. A problem of hubris, not epistemology.”.. Heady stuff, isn’t it?

    Consider your current state:   The state of your organization, and you personally.  Are you at risk for the Dunning-Kruger effect?

    In case, you logged into this blog to know how this effect can help you, follow Jeff Miller here.

    You can watch the ABC Science show on this effect here.

    Of course there is this good old Wikipedia entry on this effect.

    This blog was developed with input from Sanjay Raj Singh of

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