“One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.” – Bertrand Russell
In researching some material on skill acquisition, I came across the mention of the Dunning–Kruger effect. It describes the cognitive bias of incorrectly estimating you own competence at a skill. The Cornell University researchers after whom the effect is named (David Dunning and Justin Kruger) highlighted that the unskilled often over-estimate their abilities, while the skilled often under-estimate their abilities. In their own words:
“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.”
Put more simply: The stupid think that everyone else is stupider. The smart think that everyone else is smarter.
I have experienced this effect in my own beliefs with many of the activities I’ve undertaken, and perhaps there is a good reason for our minds to work like this. If we correctly estimated our own incompetence when first learning a skill, the sheer enormity of the undertaking might be too overwhelming to continue. At the same time, once you become an expert in a skill, it may be beneficial for continued growth to believe that there are a lot of people out there who are far more skilled than you. This gives you reason to continue striving to improve (in as much as competition is a motivator).
The practical conclusion I draw from this very human self-delusion is that I need to constantly look for ways to gauge my actual skill-level in the most objective way possible. For sports, that’s easier because often you can evaluate yourself directly against others in organized competition. For intellectual pursuits, like in academia, this is far more complicated. You have to seek feedback from your peers and social circles. However, this process is fraught with bias as the following video describes:
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