Unknown Unknowns and Don’t Knows or “Warts and All”

Remember back in 2002 when (then) US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld referred to the presence of what he termed “Unknown Unknowns” and was roundly mocked in the popular press as a consequence? Of course, at the time, those taking the time to reflect a bit more carefully on the substance of the speech and on the context could see that the phrase was quite insightful, succinct and, as it turned out, useful. This was not lost, either, on the brilliant writer NM Taleb in his subsequent book “the Black Swan” in which he demonstrated convincingly how many of the profound changes in our world are the result of “unknown unknowns”–things he has referred to as “Black Swans.”

Perhaps the popular media would have been so smug if any of its members had known anything about the Dunning Kruger effect–we’ll refer to it as the DKe for the rest of this post. Around 15 years ago Cornell’s David Dunning and Justin Kruger began publishing papers based on a series of studies they had performed. Interest in those papers was quite high and soon it became popular to refer to the cognitive bias they had identified as the DKe. Simply put, it is this: for any given area of expertise those who perform less well are also less aware of that fact.


People who first become aware of the DKe tend to take a big picture view of it and are immediately able to recognize it around them. All of a sudden a lot of things make sense. That incompetent dolt that you interact with frequently–perhaps it is the case that (s)he is not capable of the degree of self assessment that is required for proper self governance.

Those idiot co-workers, the people with whom you have to share public transportation and public spaces–all unaware of just how stupid they are.Β Even those hoards of less-than-average drivers with whom you have to share the roads. There’s a reason why they cut us off, get in our way and generally interfere with our driving: they’re incompetent and don’t know it.

In short, in a manner similar to Rumsfeld’s statement (actually he did not make it up) people don’t know what they don’t know and that explains why they can be so stupid all the time. Case closed.

Or is it? Think again about all those “below average” drivers. Did you know that the majority of those asked will state that they are, in fact, above average drivers? From a mathematical perspective that makes no sense, especially if the average we are referring to is the median. Exactly one-half of those on the road must, therefore, be below average! Something is clearly amiss if most rate themselves otherwise.


See those footprints in the snow? Now you do, but perhaps not at first. It took a bit to sink in.

The KDe is like that too. Yes, at first thought it enables us to so-clearly understand them, the incompetent ones. But, perhaps first usage of that cognitive bias is, itself, subject to two others, specifically framing bias (perceiving things differently depending on how they are presented) and confirmation bias (only considering evidence that supports your preexisting beliefs; the one thing that the whole world wide web seems to have been constructed for).

You see the DKe is not really useful when it’s about them. It’s better to think of it as being about us. Yes, us, not them.

Look down. Take a good hard look. To what extent are we unable to see the weaknesses that lurk within? Yes, it hurts.


I went to a very wise friend of mine some years back when I was struggling with a difficult situation involving another individual. Some good advice was needed so I explained the events as best I could and then listened to, and acted on, her advice. It turned out it was good advice. The suggested actions made the situation as good as it was capable of getting; tolerable.

But what she said, in closing, was what stuck the most, “there’s nothing worse than the realization of just how toxic you can be to others.” Fortunately the comment was not aimed at me. It was aimed at the other individual. Nonetheless, over time, not only has it stayed close to the surface of my reality but has become a constant reference point. The simple fact is that it very well could be me and, doubtless, has been me from time to time. I just failed to acknowledge and register it as something in need of attention.


Is the image above beautiful or terrible? It’s likely either, or both, depending on how you see it. As Dave at Pairozox Farm says, “snow brings its own palette.” In its own way it’s beautiful as are the cliffs, beach, boreal forest and cold Atlantic waters; Β a rare and wonderful treat, especially for those used to the urban landscape. It’s also damned cold and there’s not a soul who has ever stood here on this hill at this time of the year who does not long for summer.

It is what it is and, while its easy to ignore the inconvenient details, in the same way the self-awareness that can come after you acknowledge your own lack of perfection is something you cannot unsee.


About Maurice A. Barry

Coordinator: Teaching and Learning Commons, Faculty of Education, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Parent & Husband. eLearning consultant/coordinator. Program Development Specialist - eLearning (Department of Education; Retired). Writer: over 40 Math/Physics texts/webs. Developer & Manager of web content. Geek. Not into awards but loves comments.
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15 Responses to Unknown Unknowns and Don’t Knows or “Warts and All”

  1. In no particular order;

    The image is cold
    DKe syndrome sounds like peter’s principle
    Yes I did know that everyone thinks they are the world’s best driver. Did you know that most people break the law by speeding? How many people do you know you boast about that (because ya know they are such good drivers)? Do you speed (you don’t need to answer that)? Before you ask, I don’t. I find it far more challenging to get my speeds exactly right for every limit change, and set off early enough to arrive on time (gosh, that sounds so prissy but it’s true!)
    Yes, I did see the footprints because, photographically they lead you into the centre of the pic so the eye is drawn to them (A better photog pal than I am explained all that to me a while back).
    Conformation bias is fascinating. Twin sibling to ‘we appoint in our own image.’

    • Yes, cold it is. Fortunately today it’s a balmy -2 for a change. Back to -13 after Thursday’s snow though so that’s good πŸ™‚
      Regarding speeding, I, too don’t. I’m very much a type “B” personality in all ways. Just sit back, go with the (traffic) flow and enjoy the ride. My driving weakness is due to an inability to properly judge distance. I have Strabismus which means the two eyes don’t exactly look the same way–something that often puts people ill at ease around me as when I look straight at them one eye does not πŸ™‚ It also makes it harder for me to judge distance. This is an issue when parking in tight spaces like underground lots and such. It’s also a reason wy I’m very uncomfortable when I have to drive trucks as I’m never quite sure where the back of the thing ends!
      Yes–that statement captures confirmation bias precisely. That, plus the internet, where you can find like-minded others easily no matter how twisted your “likes” may be, is something that always makes be wary.

      • I suspect I’m a type A. As is the wretched little dog who has brought his ball in for play time. Unlike Big Dog who is def a B. I wrote a ‘you’ instead of ‘who’ but you must have worked it out. Just like I worked out your be was a me. Indeed be wary of the internet πŸ˜€

  2. Yes … how true. Your bring to light what is perhaps the most common (and perhaps unfortunate) of human (primate?) characteristics … the inclination to see ourselves as and at the center of our own, individual, Universe. We are all guilty of this and I would guess it’s hardwired – how could it be otherwise? In a competitive (archaic) world we each had to see ourselves as right and somehow better than the next guy … why else would we have gone out there and compete if we didn’t think we were superior or at least potentially so (remember … I’m talking about archaic folks)? This way of thinking must be adaptive and genetically programmed – those who thought otherwise didn’t make in in this Darwinian world of ours. The unfortunate fallout is that we are also social creatures and it often makes living with one another trying, to say the least. Your call to introspection is a good one … one we should all take to heart more often. By the way … very nice photos (especially the penultimate … almost looks tropical … if it weren’t for the snow!). You do live in a beautiful part of the world (but, we both know that). D

    • I believe it is hard wired and like many things that get lodged in our genetic pool it offers some advantage–the one you noted. Like all of those happy accidents, though, it had its down sides too.
      By the way, while dropping son#1 off at the bus this morning at 4:30 I turned on the WP reader and saw your latest post. I’ll comment there later on today but for now–what a beautiful picture you captured! Hope you didn’t lose your toes doing it!

  3. elkement says:

    I think that’s why I prefer to work with “geeks”, with clients who ask the hard questions. Even though they challenge me they assess their own capabilities realistically – and that of others.

    • That is a very good point. One of the things that typifies geeks is the use of more objective data and rational assessments. While I know there’s always a place for system 1 I believe “Geeks” tend to do a better job of balancing the two. And yes, it makes for a much better exchange most of the time as they don’t get so easily offended when you critique their point of view.

  4. Tiny says:

    I had so many thoughts after reading this post for the first time that I didn’t have the time to decide what to write (type B)…but I’ve witnessed all this many times around. One thing I want to mention is an experiment I did many years ago with the team I managed. I asked them to evaluate their own competencies in several key areas. I knew them well (I thought) and saw them as very self-aware and realistic. You can imagine my surprise when I saw that all but one of them (the most skillful in most areas in my book) assessed their various competencies at or near the top of the scale. That exercise resulted in many illuminating conversations, give and take, growth, etc. Another thing that plays out all the time is the confirmation bias. This is “right in your face” every day when people here discuss the Affordable Care Act (Obama care).

    • One thing I didn’t note is the mounting evidence that those who are depressive by nature tend to rate themselves more realistically. This is often taken (and I believe incorrectly so) to mean that there is some causal link between having a somewhat depressed nature and having more realistic self-assessments, as if that implies (here’s the error) that we need to be depressed πŸ™‚
      As is always the case people should be wary about conflating correlation with causation but this time I do believe there’s something of a causal link–depressives tend to be rather pessimistic anyway so any rating will be lower when given by someone who is “down” by nature, including their own assessment.
      The lesson: it’s always good practice to get input from a variety of sources and using a variety of techniques.
      One ;last thought: there’s a possibility that our current, “Self-Esteem at all costs” mentality is causing us all to reap something of a dark harvest, with people whose self-esteems have been (largely artificially) boosted gain increasing control over daily lives of others.

      • Tiny says:

        Just to clarify, we always used a variety of techniques and had input from many quarters, but we did this one experiment just to get a “bottom line” on where people saw themselves. It was useful. I fully agree with your last paragraph. Saw an example of that this past week, a fairly harmful one.

  5. tw says:

    So many truths Maurice. A long time ago I was taught there’s no way things should or shouldn’t be, there’s just what’s so. Many of our issues in life seem to come from our concepts of what we / they should or shouldn’t be but when we forget about that and accept what’s so we’re much more able to take appropriate action. So instead of fretting over all those people who should be better drivers and getting annoyed in the process I think to myself “the roads are busy, I need to be alert.” It feels much better to be doing something positive than cursing other road users, co workers or pedestrians.

  6. TamrahJo says:

    What a wonderful post! I remember when the media frenzy started on Don’s unknown’s speech – I had been introduced to the DKDK concept prior to that (Don’t Know that you Don’t Know) and I wondered why there was such a firestorm as he was expressing that concept exactly – – which reminded me of a Mark Twain quote, which I may mangle some, from memory

    “The most dangerous truth is the one you are certain of that just ain’t so”

    Thanks for the reminder – have struggled this past week with dealing with the public side of my various projects/endeavors and frustrated over what I see as illogical and rude behavior – thanks for reminding me how to put it all in perspective and try to view my own responses through a different lens.

    • It’s hard to walk a different line, and we can’t do it all the time but sometimes the beaten path does not lead to the intended destination. As for those who refuse to keep their eyes on the big picture, sometimes the best we can do is keep them from running us over πŸ™‚

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