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Do You Suffer From the Dunning-Kruger Effect?

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Charles Darwin once noted, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” We all know the modern man to whom Darwin refers: the unemployed “musician” who must inform all new acquaintences that he is, in fact, a musician (multiple times). The XHTML and jQuery “expert,” who uses XHTML as a selling point.

And if you don’t know this guy, maybe you are him!


Dunning-Kruger

It’s referred to as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled people make poor decisions and reach erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to recognize their mistakes. The unskilled therefore suffer from illusory superiority, rating their ability as above average, much higher than it actually is, while the highly skilled underrate their own abilities, suffering from illusory inferiority.

You don't even know enough to realize just how little you know.

I recently mentioned on Twitter that, from my experiences, those who label themselves as experts, more often than not… aren’t. This isn’t surprising; it stands to reason – to phrase it casually – that those who have the goods…don’t flaunt the goods! Alternatively, if one’s expertise is persistently revealed to you, by said expert, perhaps something is a few clicks off!

A guitar teacher of mine in college, once – rightly so – informed me: “You don’t even know enough to realize just how little you know.”

Little did my teacher know that this comment would stick with me for a long time. The irony, of course, is, despite the fact that years and years have passed since my conversation with him, his note still applies.

Whether the craft be music or web development, I’m not even close to an expert. Or, as Willy Brown might say, I’m not even the beginnings of a pimple on the late great Robert Johnson’s ass.

"Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. As Kruger and Dunning conclude, "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."


How to Detect a Self-Proclaimed Expert

According to Wikipedia, for a given skill, self-proclaimed experts will:

  • tend to overestimate their own level of skill
  • fail to recognize genuine skill in others
  • fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy
  • recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they can be trained to substantially improve.

Those who genuinely know their stuff are considerably modest, when compared to those who have a fraction of their experience and knowledge.

Maybe the easiest way to detect a real expert is via that very word: “expert.” Is it inaccurate for me to argue that true experts rarely refer to themselves as such, if ever? There’s that idea again: “the more you know; the more you realize how little you know.”

Everything’s relative, of course, but I’ve found that those who genuinely know their stuff are considerably modest, when compared to those who have a fraction of their experience and knowledge. Perhaps this is simple human nature. Blissful ignorance and dreams are many times preferable to actual work. It’s easier to brag about your next million dollar web application, than to actually create it. It’s more impressive to use the terms “gig” and “contract,” when you really mean, “freebie website for my sister.”

So the question remains: why do some represent expertise, while others seemingly avoid the term? I suppose I can’t speak to the former, though I can provide some personal notes on the latter.

  • First and foremost, I know in my heart that I have a long way to go before I can even fathom embracing that label – if ever.
  • The term, “expert” is a vague one, and is entirely relative. Sure, to a high school student, maybe we are experts. To my personal web development heroes, I feel like a hack. I’m sure the chain continues indefinitely. This is precisely why it’s important to refrain from using these sorts of labels in most cases.
  • Particularly in our field, no one is an expert. The industry is too young, and advances at an alarming rate. There’s always new skills to acquire. I’d argue that those who understand this truth also understand that terms like “expert” are inappropriate.
  • On a more casual and social level, you come across as a jerk when you self-diagnose yourself this way. This is similar to continuously retweeting compliments. Let your work/code do the talking, and, if you genuinely deserve the label, others will be more than happy to assign it to you. This is the correct way to achieve "expert" status. It is given...not proclaimed.

Is It Ever Okay to Call Yourself an Expert?

Is it in poor taste to designate yourself as an expert? Ultimately, it’s just a word; do what you wish. I'm admittedly being a bit pedantic here.

Christian Heilmann argues:

"Sometimes, you need to call yourself an expert to reach people who are badly in need of information."

That’s certainly a valid case, and is particularly applicable when considering events like conferences and workshops. When you host a workshop, regardless of whether you label yourself as an expert, you assume that role. When it comes to spreading education, Christian is right: sometimes you must use these terms to attract those in need. And in these teacher-student relationships, you are the expert. No harm done.

We also must consider simple marketing or SEO. To John Doe, who needs a website for his new business, it’s important to remind him that we are the “experts.” As more and more tools, which allow regular folks to create websites, are released, they should be made aware that others have dedicated their lives to learning this craft. Don’t risk the livelihood of your business, all for the sake of saving X dollars on the website. You are the expert. John Doe must know this. To the Layman, sure, abuse the term!

However, among your peers, you might think twice before labeling yourself in this way.

Arrogance is not inspiring.

This is not to say that you shouldn't be confident in your worth and abilities. Never devalue your worth to an employer or client. That said, though, unless you are one of the few truly exceptional veterans in our industry, stop patting yourself on the head, and get back to doing what we all must do in our free-time: learning. Whether you're an industry veteran or a college student, we all share one commonality: we spend as much free time as possible desperately trying to remain relevant in this ever-expanding industry.


Conclusion

As a reader of Nettuts+, I think it's safe to assume that, like me, you're considerably aware of the skills you don't yet have. Hopefully, Nettuts+ can help with that! Until next time, I'll leave you with this quote:

"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

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