Dunning-Kruger Effect, the Laws of Stupidity and why I hate gurus

In 1999, social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger conducted a study (confirmed in another essay made in 2008 by various researchers) to compare two premises. 

  • a) how students would perform in a test;
  • b) how they estimated their performance

They found something quite interesting: the students with the lowest scores were also those who overestimated the most. In contrast, those with good scores thought they would do worse [see the full story on the Decision Lab – a great discovery I made digging into this post].

In a nutshell: “The Dunning-Kruger effect is the habit of people who perform poorly at a task or area also overestimating their ability and knowledge, [and vice-versa].”

We can translate it into this graphic: 

Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is based on two axes: Confidence and Competence

If you know very little (low Competence), it seems to you that you understand a lot (high Confidence), but the more you dig into any given topic (growing Competence), you discover there is more and more to learn (U-shaped curved on Confidence). You are enlightened with your own (partial) ignorance. 

Something like this:

[correlated bias: WYSIATI, What You See Is All That Is, from Daniel Kahnemann]

Everybody says they are better than the average. 

You can validate it by asking whoever you like about any subject, from driving to cooking, from their professional abilities to their videogame score. 

Really: in another recent study conducted with software engineers, over 30% of the staff put themselves on the top 5% of performance. For curiosity’s sake, 88% of Americans say they drive better than average. 

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”

Charles Darwin

As human beings, we are terrible at estimating things—time, effort, knowledge, and competence, to say a few. The more you know, the more you know that you don’t know. 

So when you get a longer foresight of a field of knowledge, you find more holes to be filled on your repertoire and expertise. I think that is a good thing: acknowledging ignorance gives you a roadmap. It also gives you fear, that you can use as fuel to go further. 

But also can be a bad thing, commonly pictured as “the Pigeon Chessmaster Complex“. 

You can try playing chess against a pigeon and thinking four moves ahead, mixing all strategies you have ever learned. The bird will poop on the table, flap its wings and fly while singing their victory. (Hey flat earth society, this one is for you! 😉 )

Hating gurus

There is a reason I hate gurus (various reasons, but let’s dig into a couple of them): there are way more people saying they are the best than actually being the best in any given matter. 

Putting in perspective with the Basic Laws of Human Stupidity (this study REALLY exists, made by Carlo Cipolla), there are five types of people: the intelligent, the helpless, the ineffectual, the stupid, and the bandits.

Cipolla’s “Basic Laws of Human Stupidity” Matrix

My hatred for gurus comes when they say they are on the top two quadrants when are on the bottom ones. Stupid is well related to the Dunning-Kruger effect, but sometimes bandits when they know they don’t know (but advertise as they are masters). 

I spend my days working close to three main topics: innovation/entrepreneurship, education, and marketing/growth. 

And I think I have quite an extraordinary power: smell bullshit from miles away.

So when you cross-reference my field of knowledge with this accurate sniffing, one can imagine the enormous amount of false gurus spotted in a glance. 

It can become dangerous when this honesty is grossly missed, and the promise is to transform completely something crucial such as your career, company, or even financial returns with little backing or proof. 

And I’m not even touching the subject of mass manipulation and fake news on this one (that’s a whole new rant to create). As Nassim Taleb once said, “Never take any financial advice from someone who has to work for a living.” (There is a great Twitter thread with all of this). 

Trust me: there are A LOT of gurus who don’t know what they are doing, which can be explained by bad intentions or a classic Dunning-Kruger Effect. I prefer the latter, based on another mental model, Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” 

So, as Public Enemy once said, “Don’t believe the hype.”

I don’t think you need to be the One Master of anything to teach, recommend, or be followed (or else we would barely have any teachers or preachers in this world). Also, you can learn from anyone, and not only from the so-called experts. 

What you do need is to have intellectual honesty about your spot, where this knowledge is coming from, and why. Be honest about what you don’t know, and people will value more what you do know.

“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt”

Bertrand Russell



PS: I have learned a lot by digging and writing this text, and I also can see there is SO MUCH more to learn on this. So please, if you have any feedback, just hit me on LinkedIn 😉

PS2: If you liked this post and want to get A Growth Mind to your inbox, just subscribe here

PS3: Here, a TED Talk about the Dunning Kruger Effect 😉

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