The more you know… (the paradox of the Dunning-Kruger effect)

In a series of experiments at the Department of Psychology of Cornell University published in 1999, David Dunning and Justin Kruger tested a phenomenon now known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Their experiments showed that unskilled individuals mistakenly rate their ability much higher than is accurate. At the same time skilled persons can show a lack of confidence as they underestimate their own capabilities relative to those of others. Although at first sight this may look like two sides of the same coin, Dunning and Kruger conclude differently: “the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others”.

Research in earlier studies suggests that ignorance of standards of performance is behind a great deal of incompetence. This pattern was seen in studies of skills as diverse as reading comprehension, operating a motor vehicle, and playing chess or tennis. Given the wide range of skills for which this effect has been observed, it makes sense that also in the field of Management Consulting similar results can be found. My own perception does not live up to scientific scrutiny but the effect seems to be quite common in the consultancy profession. Self-acclaimed experts boasting about their knowledge and experience often lack in-depth knowledge while the views of the more modest consultants reveal profound insight and surprising expertise when they are given the chance to elaborate.

Obviously this is not a new insight. Aristotle already knew “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” and millennia after that Albert Einstein was quoted to say “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” This is an experience known to anyone aspiring to be an expert in a certain field; it is not that difficult to get some insight or sufficient knowledge to participate in a discussion. Actually becoming an expert is hard, it requires dedicated focus and diligent effort for a significant amount of time. The real authorities in any field will not brag about their knowledge. They don’t need to as they are recognized by their peers and they will not make an attempt as they are very aware about what else there is to know.

I like to finish with a quote from Arnold Glasow that I think is relevant in this context: “The trouble with ignorance is that it picks up confidence as it goes along.”