How Smart People Get Fooled By Dummies


How Smart People Get Fooled By Dummies

Chandler Stevens


You may be familiar with the Dunning-Kruger effect. It’s a cognitive bias, in which people with lower ability tend to overestimate themselves, whereas people with higher ability tend to underestimate themselves – at least until true mastery is developed.

As people begin to develop their skills or knowledge in a particular domain, it’s common that their confidence increases far more rapidly than does their actual ability.

With (painful) experience these people will increase their actual ability and become aware of just how little they know, resulting in a drop in their confidence. However, until that experience is acquired, they’ll remain disproportionately confident in their mediocre ability.

This wouldn’t be a problem if not for the fact that the internet gives everybody a platform from which to disseminate their “expertise.” Quite often, the loudest, most confident-sounding voices in the room are the least competent.

Otherwise intelligent people can then be duped by this confidence, mistaking it for actual expertise.

There’s an even more disturbing twist, revealed by a clever experiment.

The participants in this experiment are placed on opposite sides of a screen, unable to communicate with one another. They are shown images of healthy and sick cells and told that they have to learn how to differentiate between them based on trial and error.

Person A gets true feedback. When he guesses correctly, he gets a notification that he’s right. When he guesses incorrectly, he gets a notification that he’s wrong. With accurate feedback, Person A develops his ability over time, and ends up being about 80% reliable at differentiating healthy and sick cells.

Person B is in a different situation. His feedback is the same as A’s – whether or not Person B actually guessed correctly.

If Person A guessed right, Person B gets the signal that his guess was right (even if it wasn’t). If Person A guessed wrong, Person B gets the feedback that his guess was wrong (even if it was right). Person B then goes through all sorts of mental acrobatics trying to concoct a model of reality based on this feedback.

Eventually Person A and B are instructed to compare notes.

As you’d imagine, Person A offers fairly simple, concrete theories. However, Person B offers wildly complicated explanations. Remember: he has to come up with a theory based on false feedback.

What’s amazing is that Person A begins to doubt himself.

His explanation is so basic, and Person B’s is so complex that it *seems* more true. Even worse…

When they retake the same test, Person A’s performance plummets. Person A’s perfectly reasonable (and fairly reliable) mental model is muddled by Person B’s, resulting in decreased performance.

Person B, on the other hand, performs about as well as before but appears *relatively* to be performing much better than Person A, which of course, feeds into the insane idea that Person B knows what he is talking about.

What does this mean for you?

Often the people with the least actual ability have the most confidence. And they can deceive you with impressive-sounding theories that have little — if any — basis in reality.

Here’s how to tell whether or not you’re working with an expert…

When you apply the ideas they’re sharing, your performance in a given domain improves across time. Their theories fit reality and therefore have some predictive power.

If, however, you are doing everything your coach/therapist/consultant recommends, and you find that your performance is declining across time, it may be the case that you’ve been fooled by a dummy (however well-intentioned that dummy may be).

Remember: it doesn’t matter how good the idea sounds. If it doesn’t result in demonstrable positive changes in the concrete details of your life, it’s not a good idea.



[Feature Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash.]

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