In business and in life, one of the most dangerous things is to be unaware of what you don’t know. There is a great deal that I don’t know, a lot I don’t need to know and more that I will never know than I care to think about. But I always try to factor in what I don’t know, and I’m never hesitant or afraid to say, “I don’t know.”
One of the great lessons of my life—self-taught by being burned a few times—is that I cannot trust people who never say, “I don’t know.”
I’ll even take that a step further and tell you that I cannot be friends with, work with or respect someone who is unwilling or unreasonably reluctant to say, “I don’t know.”
Ignorance (not knowing) is rarely something to be ashamed of, and it rarely makes me think less of someone (unless, of course, knowing that thing is or should be critical to them). I understand that we are all ignorant of most things. For instance, I have no idea how to repair a car engine, fly a plane, perform open-heart surgery, build a web page, mix a martini or read music. Some of these things are attainable for me. (I’m not as dumb as I look … or so I think.) But I doubt I’ll ever learn them for two reasons.
First, they are not priorities for me, so I won’t make the time to learn them.
Second, there are people out there who have mastered these skills, and I rely on them when needed.
Modern society is highly specialized. The people who grow our food do not perform surgery on us or make the films that we watch. Our needs are too complex and diverse for that. I know of no 21st century Leonardo da Vinci, painting the Mona Lisa in the morning and drawing up plans for the first helicopter in the afternoon.
One of my biggest pet peeves is people who are proud of their ignorance. If you ask them a question outside their area of interest, they scoff and tell you not only are they unaware of whatever it is you’re talking about, they are glad they don’t know.
For the record, I can’t name any songs by Marilyn Manson or Taylor Swift, but that fact brings me no joy. I’ve never been surfing or rock climbing — and I rest easy knowing that I never will — but the lack of those experiences is not a badge of honor.
While pride in ignorance is a pet peeve of mine, I find it far less maddening than when someone denies their own ignorance and refuses to say, “I don’t know.”
Don’t they realize I’m relying on their answer? Don’t they understand that I might drive for miles, fish for hours or put something in print based on what they say?
Quite often they do. They know that their answer matters … and they may even care, but they have no meaningful appreciation for what they don’t know and they’re unwilling to admit it — to themselves or to me.
Which brings me to the title of this column: The Dunning-Kruger Effect. I only heard of it recently (it didn’t even have a name 20 years ago), but I think we’ve all known about it for a long time.
Wikipedia, while far from an authoritative source on such things, offers a fair starting point for a definition. It provides that “the Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which low-ability individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability as much higher than it really is.”
To put it another way, the Dunning-Kruger Effect says the dumber you are, the more likely you are to believe you’re smart.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I didn’t need an expensive study at Cornell University (1999) to enlighten me with this information. I was onto it without any formal experiments, double-blind peer review or published data with charts and graphs. All I lacked was the cool name. For decades, I’ve just thought of it as “the dumbass effect.” Unfortunately, it’s difficult to get published in respected scientific journals using that as a title, so kudos to David Dunning and Justin Kruger for putting their names on it first.
We all need to watch out for the Dunning-Kruger Effect. It’s all around us and can strike at any time. I encountered it most recently in the Media Center at the Bassmaster Classic. I asked an open question to no one in particular and a well-established Dunning-Kruger carrier jumped in. Luckily, I knew who I was dealing with and did some research before acting. The due diligence saved me. The Dunning-Kruger carrier would have caused me considerable embarrassment.
Ultimately, if we’re victimized by Dunning-Kruger, we have mostly ourselves to blame. We’ve asked the wrong person or taken their answer at face value without any due diligence.
Most often we know who the Dunning-Kruger carriers are in our lives. If we can’t avoid them, at least we can keep them at arm’s length and ask no more complex questions than, “How are you?”
Even the worst Dunning-Kruger carrier can be trusted with that one.