Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Oh, Oh! When You're Not As Clever As You Think

Long time, no see!  I’ve been busier than the proverbial bees and so haven’t had the time to blog.

However, apart from the private clients and the novel writing, I’m also back into research. I’ll tell you more about it in a few months. In the meantime, I thought you’d be interested in this nugget.

Do you ever find yourself super irritated by people who wax lyrical on complex topics they know absolutely nothing about? If yes, then read on....

The Man In The Pub is a classic. He’s the one who tells you how to fix the national budget, lower your blood pressure, dump your difficult boss, and he’ll have a sure fire fix your love life too - whether you ask him or not! The thing about him is that he's just ordinary but he thinks he's a genius.

Curiously, the Man In The Pub phenomenon is becoming more and more common. Just look around and you’ll hear people talking very confidently about statins, food additives, allergies - and they do it while admitting they barely passed their high school chemistry and biology exams, never mind taking a hard science course of any kind at college.

Question: why do these people think they understand complex topics when their ‘research’ consists of reading a couple of Facebook posts based on a magazine article that was shared by friends?

First, there’s the Dunning-Kruger effect. It says that when you lack skills, you come to the wrong conclusions. Then, because you don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t tell you’ve made a mistake. So you go about, thinking you’ve got it nailed, when actually you don’t. What you do have is a case of illusory superiority. Ouch, right? (Want to read the papers, check out the references below)

And here’s the bit I’m interested in... I think the reason we’re all becoming The Man In The Pub is because we have the illusion that we’re always connected and always learning. Our smartphones and our Google make us think that we’re soaking up smarts. 

We feel empowered, which is lovely, but we’re not actually learning that much. While we might be a bit better about finding out quickly where Bangui is, or who was fighting at Flodden back in 1513, no amount of Googling is a substitute for serious study. That's common sense, right? If all you had to do was Smartphone away, we’d all have a couple of dozen PhDs by now.

Given we're living in the Internet age, we’re all suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect at least a little bit. And the problem is that it can make life awfully difficult. (I’ll write more about that later, as this is getting a bit long.)

It got me thinking, what’s a quick self-check to see if you might be falling into this?

I suggest this: the next time you talk about a complex topic, like medicine or space exploration, ask yourself what kind of knowledge you would need to be a world renowned expert. Could you be a surgeon on the basis of your marketing degree?  Would NASA ask you to take charge of the Space Station because you have a masters in psychology? If the answer is probably not, watch yourself.

Crushing, right? And I was so certain I could do Robert M. Lightfoot Jr's job! But hey, better than being The Man In The Pub. 

Check it out these papers:

Dunning, D. (2011). 5 The Dunning-Kruger Effect: On Being Ignorant of One's Own Ignorance. Advances in experimental social psychology, 44, 247.
Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of personality and social psychology, 77(6), 1121.