The ‘Dunning-Kruger effect’

Alun Rees explains why it’s not always the ‘cocksure’ and confident employees you want to trust.

Recently I have been writing and speaking much about the risk of isolation in dentistry and how our ‘silo professional lifestyle’, whilst attractive in some ways, can lead to problems.

At this reflective time of year, consider the work of Dunning and Kruger from Cornell University, who published a landmark paper in 1999.

In summary they showed that ‘people tend to hold overly favourable views of their abilities’ and ‘not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realise it.’

They showed the wisdom in Darwin’s words: ‘Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge’ and echoed Bertrand Russell who said: ‘The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt’.

An imposter

When I left university, the best advice I was given was: ‘You’re just about safe, now go away and start learning properly’.

The fear of being rumbled as an imposter, who had accidentally slipped through the net to get his BDS has never left me – even five years after I retired from clinical dentistry.

I worry about courses that promise the earth in a weekend, that deliver minimal competence but maximum confidence.

I used to go on some courses and then think that I was plain thick because what I had learned was not immediately helping me earn ‘loads of money’.

The same rule applies to recruitment.

How many times have you discovered that the person whose CV lists all manner of competencies because they have taken courses with X, Y and Z?

Yet 12 months in you find yourself having to re-do their work at great expense.

In 2018/9 parlance: ‘Idiots don’t know they’re idiots and the most skilled are generally also the most self-critical.’

Read more from Alun Rees:

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