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. 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; 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.