T he English philosopher Bertrand Russell once said, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”
Perhaps what’s even more amazing is that he said this long before the advent of the internet.
Today, due to the joys of social media, we are regularly exposed to legions of people who believe they know what the fuck they are talking about when they do not. And, indeed, as Russell pointed out, the more clueless these people are, the more confident in their pronouncements they seem to be.
It turns out that Russell’s axiom has been studied and the data back it up. People who are bad at something do believe they are good at it, and people who are good at it do believe they are bad at it. Amateurs are overconfident and experts are underconfident. Newbies believe they’ve got it all figured out and the weathered veterans understand that nothing is really known for sure.
In psychology, this is known as the “Dunning-Kruger Effect.” It’s a psychological tendency named after the two researchers who initially measured it. And it’s surprising how wide its applications are in our lives.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect: Ignorance of Ignorance
There are four types of information:
- Known knowns: Information you know you understand. (e.g., how to ride a bike.)
- Known unknowns: Information you know you don’t understand. (e.g., quantum physics.)
- Unknown knowns: Information that you know, but you didn’t realize that you knew it. Bonus! (e.g., we didn’t realize we instinctively knew how to be a parent until it happened.)
- Unknown unknowns: Information that you’re completely oblivious to. Not only do you not know it, you don’t even know that you don’t know it.
The unknown unknowns are where the Dunning-Kruger effect comes into play in the worst way. It’s our tendency to overestimate our own knowledge/skills/competence and underestimate our own ignorance.¹
The Dunning-Kruger Effect goes beyond ignorance. It presents a meta-layer of ignorance — the ignorance of…