Dunning–Kruger Esteem

Last week, I discussed the impostor syndrome as it relates to myself and self-esteem. Catch up here if you missed it. This week, I will be continuing down a similar path by discussing the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is essentially the opposite of the impostor syndrome. It’s when a person drastically overestimates their expertise in any given area. Here is a pretty handy graph to quickly illustrate the difference between the two:

If you are falling anywhere above that dotted line, you’re doing it wrong.

These folks not only falsely assume that they are superior to others, but have no ability to recognize their own lack of skill. They also tend to have difficulty acknowledging genuine expertise in others.

Sound familiar?

Of course it does. These are the snowflakes, waving their trophies high in the air and declaring themselves elite in every way. The more humble of us settle for ‘above average,’ but the idea that we might be anything less than that is preposterous. We are not average. We are geniuses, and you will not tell us otherwise.

My generation has been told we are special and above average since birth. It’s no wonder that most of us are arrogant and overly confident in our own abilities. Despite my own dealings with the impostor syndrome, I feel that more of my generational cohort embodies this idea. Arrogance leads to hubris, and hubris leads to all kinds of problematic and/or painful lessons.

Everyone can name somewhere around three hundred people like this. Brazen, loud, opinionated, and wildly ill-informed about their opinions. The only options when you encounter one of these folks are: try to reason with them (pro tip: this has literally never worked), try to argue louder than them (again, not recommended), give up and let them be right, or avoid them entirely. They have to be right, and even in the face of facts, most of them will start a war of attrition until you give up your argument and/or abandon any remaining shreds of hope you have for the future of humanity.

I’m sure this occasionally happened prior to the Self-Esteem Movement and pumping kids full of weapons grade confidence, so I can’t rightfully assign blame here. I can point out that the idea of the Dunning-Kruger effect came about in the late nineties, which probably isn’t a coincidence. I’m also sure that the number of people who embody this concept has exponentially increased.

Take the case of my favorite fictional illiterate, Charlie Kelly. Flowers for Charlie is an episode in season nine of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which was a pseudo-parody of the 1966 novel, Flowers for Algernon. In the episode, Charlie is given a pill and told that it will exponentially increase his intelligence.

Charlie quickly masters reading, and begins reading multiple books per day. He listens to two different audiobooks at any given time, learns to speak Chinese, and starts working on some secretive project. As his intelligence grows, he begins to feel above his usual activities and associates. He even shuns the un-named waitress for her lack of intellect, despite his history of stalking the absolute shit out of her.

In the end, it’s revealed that his big experiment was a phone system to allow spiders to talk to cats (yep, you read that correctly). The drug he was given was actually a placebo, and the experiment was analyzing the effects of telling a person they are a genius. He was actually shouting gibberish instead of Chinese, and still couldn’t really read.

The conclusion found was that Charlie had become arrogant and unbearable because of this blind validation of his status as a genius, even in the complete absence of other evidence.

Isn’t that kind of what we have done as a society?

In my mind, this episode is as much social commentary as it is parody of a classic story. We are a generation of people who cannot grasp the idea that half of us are below average. We can’t all be the smartest and best at everything, but we think we are, because that’s the implication of all this trophy and self-esteem nonsense.

We are arrogant and overconfident, but we don’t know it. Extreme overconfidence taking hold on an unconscious level is a terrifying thing to think about. It’s the sort of thing that leads to the collapse of civilizations.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating – you probably aren’t the smartest person in the room unless you are alone. Instead of succumbing to the idea that we are experts in all things, we ought to take the opportunity to accept our ignorance and learn something.

Learning is a good thing. Once you have learned enough about a subject, you actually get to act like an expert, which is then called confidence or competence instead of arrogance. Nobody likes loud, ignorant people, so remember that next time you catch yourself being one.


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