by John M Olsen
The Dunning-Kruger Effect comes from a scholarly paper published in 1999 by social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger. It describes a bias where people with low cognitive ability in a specific area also are a poor judge of their ability in that area. If you are good at something, you tend to know you are good at it. If you are very bad at something, you have a good chance of being unaware of how bad you are and assuming you have much greater skill than you really do. It’s like a drunk who believes he’s a better driver than when he’s sober, or that one guy you know who thinks it’s hilarious to constantly tell Dad Jokes.
A five-dollar word for this area of psychology is metacognition. It means thinking about how thinking works. But what does it do for us when we think about how our minds work, or how the minds of others work? That’s where the seven points come into play.
Recognize there is infinitely more out there than what you already know. There are four categories of knowledge. Things you know you know (I know how to drive a car), things you know you don’t know (I don’t know how to perform open heart surgery), things you don’t know you know (Replacing that toilet float valve was simpler than I thought it would be), and things you don’t know you don’t know (Where did that come from?). In addition, there are things you think you know which are wrong. One name for this process and ability is self-awareness.
The trick is to migrate as much as possible into that first category, the things you know that you know, while removing both the ignorance and the lies you believe. You draw on this knowledge base every day.
2. Study Broadly
Study many subjects. Learn new things. Be curious. A broad base leads to better general understanding because different areas overlap. If I know how nuts, bolts, and levers work, I can apply that when I change a tire or assemble Ikea furniture.
When I started writing short fiction regularly, I thought I knew what I was doing. Then I started to study writing and discovered whole areas of story structure I didn’t even know about before. There were story structures I hadn’t heard of, and even vocabulary I didn’t know such as “meet cute” and “denouement.”
Your day-to-day behavior depends on what you know, so grow your knowledge base. There are several ways to do this, which I’ll mention next.
3. Read for Pleasure
Read Fantasy and Science Fiction. I read quite a bit and devoured my father’s library when I was a teenager. You probably read, too, if you’re here following this blog.There are some things that make Speculative Fiction different from other reading.
There are some things that make Speculative Fiction different from other reading. One of these is how information is delivered. Quite often at the start of a story you are bombarded with new things like names, concepts, geography, and a host of other things that are not all explained up front. Those who enjoy fantasy and science fiction have learned to package the dangling ends up and store them in a mental box labeled “the author will get back to this soon, so don’t worry about it.”
If a Borlox smells an iron-tipped carbonizer, you create a couple of boxes and drop the new terms in while fully expecting to learn what both things mean sometime in the near future.
This ability to package and delay the matching up of terms and definitions changes how you think, and how you deal with conversations. You have a built-in stock of questions to ask when someone talks to you about a new subject because you’re used to building up a list of unknowns to be defined later.
4. Expand Your Horizons
Push outside your bubble. We all have a comfort zone where everything is understood and accepted. Learn about new technical fields. Learn a language. Study history. Collect stamps, coins, or seashells. It doesn’t matter how you expand, but it does matter that you do something.
Everyone is ignorant in some area. Everyone is wrong about something. Everyone is right about something else. These bubbles we live in exist in a lot of areas. If you spend any time on social media, you can see where people divide into factions who all tend to share opinions and believe about the same way. You’ve probably seen this a lot related to politics and religion.
The problem is that these groups often don’t understand those they disagree with, which makes the others easy to label as the enemy rather than as an opportunity to learn something new. You may not agree with the other camp in the end, but if you understand them, you’re more likely to treat them as decent human beings.
If you’re generalizing, you’re probably looking at something outside your collection of bubbles, something outside your horizon. Learn about it from those who understand it. It will do you little good to learn about a subject from its critics.
5. Avoid Imposter Syndrome
Once you’ve improved a skill, you may notice that you take that skill for granted and assume everyone is as good as you, if not better. Dunning-Kruger shows this in the graphs of the study where the most skilled will underestimate their proficiency because they assume they are average.
You can become an expert. You may have heard the rule of thumb that you can become an expert at something by spending 10,000 hours doing it. That will vary wildly from one subject to another, just like the idea as a writer that your first million words are just practice and likely garbage.
The Dunning-Kruger study showed that learning a skill improved the ability to judge skill level in that area. As you become an expert, you will recognize your past ignorance and your current skill level more and more over time.
There is, however, one downside.
6. Retain Humility
Once you’ve overcome Imposter Syndrome, your biggest challenge is to remain humble about your improved skills. There are enough unknowns out there to keep you humble if you look for them. Go back and learn something new all over again. We are all horribly ignorant in so many areas that we can’t count them.
Some look on humility as a weakness. Here’s a different way to look at it:
There’s another step to this to keep in mind as well, since there’s something a lot of humble experts have in common from my personal experience.
7. Teach others
Encourage others to expand their horizons. Share what you know, whether it’s knowledge in a particular field or a general thirst for truth.
John M Olsen reads and writes fantasy, science-fiction, steampunk, and horror as the mood strikes, and his short fiction is part of several anthologies. He devoured his father’s library in his teen years and has since inherited that formidable collection and merged it with his own growing library in order to pass a love of learning on to the next generation.
He loves to create things, whether writing novels or short stories or working in his secret lair equipped with dangerous power tools. In either case, he applies engineering principles and processes to the task at hand, often in unpredictable ways.
He lives near the Oquirrh Mountains in Utah with his lovely wife and a variable number of mostly grown children and a constantly changing subset of extended family.
Strap on some safety goggles and see all his ramblings on his blog.
His debut Fantasy novel Crystal King is available on Amazon.