/ psychology

Dunning-Kruger Effect and I, the impostor

Dunning-Kruger effect is an illusion of competence bias, presenting itself in two ways: one, the severely incompetent do not recognise their own incompetence, nor do they recognise competence in others, and assume they’re far better than they really are; two, the highly competent assume that others are at a similar level of competency and/or assume that the test, knowledge, etc. is easy to come by and that they’re nothing special.

Frequently, the Dunning-Kruger for competent comes with a partner, the Impostor Syndrome. People with Impostor Syndrome assign their success, their competence, etc. down to sheer luck and an unexplained ability to fool others. They feel they’ve conned others into thinking they’re good when in fact they’re average at best, very poor at worst. Both biases are frequently situation-driven, I.e. resulting from external stimuli. Both can also be managed, but only if the person is aware of it.

So this is a short story on how I finally decided to face it head on. I’ve decided to stop avoiding the issue.

Impostor Syndrome

Impostor syndrome drives you to be factually correct every time you opine about something related to you area of assumed expertise. The fear of not being correct, that overwhelming feeling that if you’re wrong you will be exposed as a fraud is debilitating and paralysing (Cozzarelli, 1990). Because of that fear you frequently don’t write things down, and when you do, you take forever to do so because you need to check and double-check everything you write, check every reference you make and suddenly everything, from the simplest presentation or email takes forever because you just need to make sure that you are correct.

This fear of being exposed as a fraud makes you question yourself and makes you comparatively unproductive when it comes to committing anything in writing. Talking, that is easy, because people forget what was said and they only remember vague outlines. But, you won’t speak up unless you are damned sure about what you’re saying - and this is where the massive difference in size between tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge puts up another obstacle.

The curse of expertise

A Stanford study (see what I’m doing here?) has shown what we’ve known for a long time: that the explicit and tacit knowledge differ, not just in size but also in the coverage. So what happens when you’re in situations that time and again question your expertise? No, your explicit knowledge does not grow; all that happens is that you stop tapping into tacit knowledge and start avoiding situations where you need to use your knowledge, tacit or explicit. And thus your path to the deeper and deeper areas of self-doubt and endless self-questioning, combined with the insatiable need to gather more and more information that confirms your tacit knowledge begins.

First step to tackling the Impostor Syndrome, they say, is to become aware of it. Second step is to avoid situation that can exacerbate it. Sometimes that means avoiding the types of people that exacerbate the syndrome in you. Especially if they, too, are exhibiting the Dunning-Kruger effect (just on the opposite end of the scale).

Dunning-Kruger Effect

Which neatly leads us to the exhibition of another cognitive bias, the Dunning-Kruger Effect. There are two extremes to the Dunning-Kruger Effect:

  • first, the severely incompetent, who don’t know how badly incompetent they are, can’t see competence in others, and the sheer overestimation of their own competence;
  • second, the highly competent, who underestimate their own abilities, consider challenges to have been fairly easy if they manage them with ease and assume everyone else would’ve done just as well.

When the two extremes meet interesting things happen. But only if you’re an especially cynical observer or if you have schadenfreude tattooed on the inside of your skull. That, however, is second to the widespread confirmation bias that everyone exhibits when they first hear about Dunning-Kruger Effect. Fact: incompetent people in our personal or professional lives do not automatically qualify for the first category, no matter how much we think they do.

And then there’s the wonderful combination of Impostor Syndrome and Dunning-Kruger Effect. That’s when you are decently competent, consider yourself average and you automatically ascribe anything you achieve to luck or somehow fooling others into thinking you are better than you see yourself. This feeling is different to depression, which as we all know is a [psychiatric syndrome]. Unlike the (mental disorder) major depression, Impostor Syndrome and Dunning-Kruger effect are typically situation-driven and externally focused. What that means is that we don’t beat ourselves up (that much), we just think that we’re lucky and fooling others. It also means that we can’t quite accept our own abilities and work so much harder than anyone else to justify to ourselves that we, maybe, are deserving of the gains we have. However, that confirmation is always “just over the yonder hill”.

Where do we go from here?

Quite frankly, I don’t know exactly how I can address my problems with internalisation of what I have achieved, insignificant as it may be. But I do know that I likely need to do the following:

  • get external confirmation now and then, from people that I hold in esteem for their achievements in the field, that I, maybe, am deserving of the recognition I get here and there;
  • get out there and share my knowledge: if I am a fraud, or barking up the wrong tree, at least I can get a confirmation. I know that I can and do learn from my own (and better still, from others’) mistakes;
  • keep my head down and just keep chugging on, because frankly this self-reflection is just getting me down. ;-)