Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Dunning-Kruger Effect 

Right after Easter, I did a speech at my Toastmasters International (public speaking) club. “Spring is sprung” we said; “I want to spring a new concept on you” I said.

Easter, of course, celebrates the return of spring, and new life, and the return of Jesus of Nazareth. The experts say that Jesus was both 100 per cent divine and 100 percent human. And I think He was 100 per cent wonderful. From the movie version of Jesus Christ Superstar I recall the scene, in my version of memory, where King Herod is gazing at Jesus in the distance. Herod, half sprawled across a harlot, calls out derisively,

“OK Jesus, if you’re so cool,
Walk across my swimming pool.”

Gazing around at my fellow toastmasters, I posed the question: “Do you think King Herod could “see” Jesus for what he was?” No, of course not. And if the Buddha came into this room and we were helping each other at the coffee urn, would I “clue in” that I was standing beside an enlightened being? Not right away, maybe not at all. Maybe I would need a glimmering of enlightenment myself before I could “see” him.

Last summer Bob Elwood told us of building a stone fountain in his back yard. He could have planned in advance where each stone would go; he could have planned a timetable, with stages, and deadlines, forcing himself to get it done. Not Bob. He enjoyed being in his yard, week after week, guilt free, and then one day, he and his brother found themselves easily spending a full day on it, getting it all done, and feeling good. No guilt, no regrets, only a deep satisfaction. I posed the question: “Bob, when you were, say, age 21, would have been able to “imagine” such a thing?” Bob slowly shook his head. “No.”

There were two professors, Kruger and Dunning, at Cornell University, and they did an experiment. They met students coming out of the classroom after an exam, and they asked them how they thought they did on the test, and then compared the student’s guesses to their actual marks. The professors did this for classes and tests as diverse as logic, English grammar and spotting written humor. The results were always the same.

Imagine if 100 students were lined up in a row, from the lowest mark to the highest. (In science, this is called a percentile) The students who just “didn’t get it” rated themselves about as being at the 60 mark. (percentile) In other words, as being “above average.” I asked my fellow toastmasters, “Guess what their actual mark was?”
“40?” This was the common guess.
“Nope. Lower.” They were surprised.
“20?” Fewer guesses now, they couldn’t believe it was that low.
“Nope. Lower still”
One brave soul guessed, “10?”
I said, “It was 12.”

Call it the Dunning-Kruger effect. (or Kruger-Dunning, which is easier to say) The implications: The truly incompetent don’t know they are incompetent, and furthermore, they are unable to “see” competence in others.

We can see a version of this effect in our city, and in every city where a certain experiment has been tried: According to statistics, most of us are average drivers—According to scientific polls, most of us self-report being above average drivers. In other words, that crazy tailgater behind you in your left lane thinks he’s a good driver and you’re not: He can’t understand why you don’t save him a mini-micro second of time by riding the bumper of a school bus full of innocent children—even as both you and the bus driver are passing car after car over in the right lane—and even if he is “planning” to suddenly dart two lanes to the right for his turn off during rush hour. When the tailgater looks in his bathroom mirror, what he doesn’t see is an incompetent driver.

As for the truly competent students, Kruger and Dunning found they tended to modestly underestimate their mark. They were humble. This makes sense to me: I imagine if you are seeking excellence and immersing yourself in something then after a while you can’t imagine how others are so unfamiliar with what you are so “into.” As my favorite web essayist and computer programmer Paul Graham put it, “If there is a Michael Jordon of (programming), no one knows, not even him.”

Another fine web essayist and programmer, “Stevey” Yegge, once wrote how he started out as a beginner, and then got to where he proudly thought he was a good programmer. …After some years he realized, one day, (in my version) ‘I had thought I was a good programmer before, but now I’m proud to be a good programmer.’ …After some more years he thought ‘Now at last I’m a good programmer, I was mistaken those other times.’ …After some more years, after becoming a still better programmer, he perceived the pattern…. How humbling. Today he knows he will spend his life seeking excellence while realizing he will never understand those few truly great programmers. Just as I can’t understand the Buddha’s enlightenment while sadly realizing I can “see” no stepping-stones to get me to where he is.

Being an experienced programmer, Stevey does a lot of the hiring interviews at Google. He reports that while he can weed out the ones who only “talk a good game,” and spot any programmer as smart as he is, he just has no way to “see” the super-competent. This frustrates the hell out of him. For hiring superstars, he concludes, “You just have to get lucky.”

I have tried, I told my fellow club members, to imagine the Kruger-Dunning effect in the real world. As you know, people often run for election to be US president after being a state governor or vice-president. I imagined a man who thought he was a good mayor, and then thought he was a good state governor, and then thought he could try for the White House. Only he wasn’t a man, he was a lady, Sarah Palin! ... (You may recall that even when reporters lobbed softball questions at her, she would still swing wildly and miss—every single time) Too bad she hadn’t spent a little time—ten or twenty minutes every day—learning social studies.

I have asked myself, “What are the implications of the Dunning-Kruger effect for my own life? Maybe I could role model off Stevey, not Sarah: Every day at home he made a little effort to learn a little math. For my part, if I believe I know “a lot” about my career, “except for a few things I could pick up anytime I needed to” then maybe, perhaps, I should get around to learning these “few things” sooner, not later. Until then I’d better not claim to be an expert, at least not loudly and egotistically.

For the rest of my life, the best thing I could do is what the Japanese call Kaizen: lots of little improvements. This I believe: Never stop learning, never give up.

Here’s a practical application of the Dunning-Kruger effect: Suppose I am seeking a martial arts teacher, but I don’t want a bad one. I suppose I could go around to the students at various dojos, and they might all tell me they have a fine sensei. (Literally: one who has gone before) Simply asking students, then, would not be my test. Rather, I would meet the sensei and then, if he was egotistical? I would head for the door! Surely, for any calling in life, the good ones are humble…. Contrawise, the egotistical ones are always the mediocre ones—and they don’t even know it.

Thus I ended my talk. My speech evaluator, as it happened, worked in human resources, (personnel) and she told us with amusement she didn’t like the idea that for hiring superstars you have to get lucky. Later that night in the bar people told me they really liked my speech. I wondered if I should have ended by returning to a scene with Jesus.

…The man who stilled the water had no use for ego. In His day, the equivalent of a percentile line up would be at a wedding table, where the “top of the line” was the guy at the head of the table, next was the guy seated at his right, next the guy on the left, and so on down the table. In my version of the scene, Jesus advised against ego, against running up and shoving for a high place in the line. What he advised instead was humbly finding a seat near the bottom of the table, being content there… and maybe then being invited up to a higher place. How wonderful: This was 2,000 years before Kruger and Dunning.

Sean Crawford,
Seeing my first robins,
April 2013
Footnotes: More from Paul Graham's essay, News From the Front
"No one ever measures recruiters by the later performance of people they turn down."

Graham was referring to "playing it safe" by only recruiting folks from "big name" universities—Note: Unlike Europe and Canada, down in the US campuses vary widely, even within the same state university; hence they will only sometimes put the adjective "good" in front of a "university."—The application to "not being able to see greatness" is obvious. His above sentence was footnoted:
[2] Actually, someone did, once. Mitch Kapor's wife Freada was in charge of HR at Lotus in the early years. (As he is at pains to point out, they did not become romantically involved till afterward.) At one point they worried Lotus was losing its startup edge and turning into a big company. So as an experiment she sent their recruiters the resumes of the first 40 employees, with identifying details changed. These were the people who had made Lotus into the star it was. Not one got an interview.

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