One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.
—Bertrand Russell, The Triumph of Stupidity
I think it is fair to say that robbing a bank is a really bad idea. The reward is uncertain, the chances of getting caught are high and the consequences of getting caught can be devastating. And yet, people still rob banks.
To offset the risks, aspiring John Dillengers can get pretty creative. In 1995, McArthur Wheeler robbed two banks in Pittsburgh. Mr. Wheeler recognized that an easy way to get caught was being seen on a surveillance camera. He remembered that you can make “invisible ink” with lemon juice (you can write with the juice and then, when you want to read it, warm the page and the writing reappears). He decided he could extend this concept and so he smeared his face with lemon juice before entering the banks. He didn’t wear a mask—he didn’t need to. The lemon juice would make is face invisible to the cameras.
I think it is fair to say that this was a pretty stupid idea. I doubt you would be surprised to find out that police released the videos to the media and within an hour of them being broadcast on the news, Mr. Wheeler was in custody.
What you might find surprising, though, is that he was completely surprised to be caught. He even was quoted saying to police, “But I wore the juice!”
The problem for Mr. Wheeler and his juice was two-fold. First, the lemon juice idea was a really dumb one. The second was that Mr. Wheeler didn’t seem to have the intelligence to figure that out for himself.
We all have dumb ideas. But usually, upon reflection, we realize it and choose not to act on them.
But Mr. Wheeler was unable to step outside of his idea and examine his theory objectively. This inability landed him in jail and inspired a direction of research by sociologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect
They ran fascinating experiments on their students testing their self-evaluation of competence in different areas (sense of humor, grammar, and logic). Those who rated themselves the highest tended to perform the worst on tests in those areas. Then, when asked to guess where they ranked among their classmates, those who performed the worst were also most inclined to rank themselves towards the top.
Through their research, Dunning and Kruger found that evaluating one’s skill in a particular area requires a minimal level of skill in that area. That seems pretty self-evident. If someone presents you with examples of Coptic poetry (Coptic was spoken in Egypt between the 2nd and 17th centuries) and asked to give your opinion on them, more than likely you would state the obvious, “I can’t read Coptic and I know nothing about ancient Egyptian poetry, so I really can’t have an opinion.”
Most people could figure this out on their own. Digging a bit deeper, though, Dunning and Kruger found that if people know just a little bit they will form opinions of their expertise. But if they don’t know enough, they will not have realistic perceptions of that expertise.
My daughter is five. She is starting to tell jokes. Few of them are funny and she clearly doesn’t know that. She knows enough to know what a joke is and that they are supposed to be funny. So her assumption is that when she tells a joke, it must be funny. The problem is that, at five-years-old, she doesn’t have the experience to know the difference between a joke that is funny and one that is not. Because of this, she cannot realistically gauge her own sense of humor.
Because this insight came from their research, this is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. People who are ignorant in a particular area tend to overestimate their abilities. Interestingly, the inverse of this is that people with a higher level of skill tend to underestimate their abilities.
My wife, Julie, and I met in graduate school. As I got to know her, I was very impressed with her as a student. Sure, she was smart (still is), but she was also a relentlessly hard worker. The more difficult the material, the harder she pushed herself.
The results were that she did very well. The funny thing was that her success almost always caught her off-guard. Before every test, she would tell me how she wasn’t ready. When she came home from a test, she was certain that she bombed. This always got a wry smile and an eye roll from me. It seemed that the worse she thought she did, the better her actual grade was. For Julie, certainty of failure seemed to insure a high A.
The Impact on Parenting
As a martial arts teacher, I have worked with hundreds of children and their parents over the years. And I have seen the Dunning-Kruger effect at work.
Some of the most uncertain parents were the most successful at raising healthy, well-balanced kids. These parents were most inclined to question their own assumptions and critical of their successes. They were also most likely to seek outside information and ideas.
I have had a lot of parents ask me over the years for advice on how to better approach their children. More often than not, these were conversations addressing minor tweaks to their kids’ behavior. They were self-aware enough to recognize their limitations (and their children’s flaws) to question what they were doing. And these questions lead to pro-actively seeking better solutions.
I have also worked with parents on the other end of the Dunning-Kruger spectrum.
When I first started teaching children, I set the minimum age at six years old. My first phone call from a prospective parent seemed strange at the time, but turned out to be a template for phone calls and emails I would receive for years to follow.
The mom was the parent of a five year old. I told her that our program started at six. She assured me that she understood this, but that her child was special and was insistent that I should break my own guidelines and accept her child.
When we started accepting four and five year olds with the creation of our Wee Warriors program, we started getting calls for three year olds. Now that we offer Wee Warriors classes for three year olds, we have received calls for as young as 18 months old.
Our age limits are the product of us working with hundreds a children over the course of years, as well researching the developmental stages of children. Though there are people who know more about child development, I think it is fair to say that we at TMAA are expert in the area.
On the other hand, most parents have knowledge of child development that is based only in their child (or children). This is the perfect setup for the Dunning-Kruger effect, because it gives just enough experience to make one feel expert, but not enough to be truly expert.
This effect can be compounded when a parent compares their experience with people they know who don’t have children. We have all dealt with the ignorance of a friend who just does not understand what it is like to be parent.
All this being said, I realize that people calling on behalf of children who are below our age-minimums are trying to do what is best for their kids. When we receive these types of calls, we do the best we can to walk them through the reasons from a developmental perspective for why we have the limits we do.
Passing the Effect to Your Children
The Dunning-Kruger effect can cause parents to over-estimate their children’s ability. And it is something that can be passed down. I can remember an example of this in a boy who was in our school several years ago.
Physical fitness is an important part of all of our programs. In this spirit, we do a lot of pushups. This one student never really got the hang of pushups. Part of the challenge was that his mom felt he did everything perfectly and she was quick to tell him so. The result was that it was very difficult for him to receive critical feedback that contradicted this perception of perfection.
In addition to strength and endurance, good pushups require good form. And though this student was with us for a few years, I was never able to get him to work on his form. And so he never really improved.
During that time, I was visiting his elementary school and ended up chatting with his gym teacher. She cautiously started a conversation about pushups. After a few minutes, I realized that she was trying to figure out if I understood how they were done and taught properly.
It turns out that my student had been bragging about how amazing his pushups were because he did the all the time in my school. So when he did pushups as part of her fitness exam, this teacher was stunned to see how bad they were.
Her obvious conclusion? I didn’t understand the exercise and had been misleading this boy.
The reality was that this was the Dunning-Kruger effect in action. Unfortunately, it meant that my student was stuck—unable to progress because his (and his mother’s) belief system denied him the self-awareness required for making improvements.
Limiting the Dunning-Kruger Effect
So how do you avoid the Dunning-Kruger effect in yourself and in your kids?
Begin with something that is relatively simple, but often can be uncomfortable. Cultivate some healthy self-doubt. Acknowledge that it is possible that you are incorrect and seek more information. You especially want to explore opinions, ideas and evidence that contradict your own.
This leads to greater objectivity and can offer a broader context of understanding for your perspectives and choices.
Of the parents who wanted us to accept children under our age-limits, many listened to the explanations for our policies and learned from our perspective. They recognized that our experience with children was more comprehensive than theirs and often times finished the conversation grateful to have gained some insight into their child’s development.
But some parents remained adamant that their child was special. Early on, I accepted a handful of these children on a probationary basis. I am always willing to be wrong. In fact, being wrong—and finding out—is a short path to being right, so I eagerly seek opportunities to learn when my ideas are incorrect.
Invariably, though, these children did not do well. The classes were out of reach for them developmentally, and they did not last long.
Healthy self-doubt is important and you can teach it to your children. When they make a statement of “fact,” ask them questions. Not so much as a challenge to the legitimacy of the statement as fact, but to show them how a person checks their beliefs against other ideas and perspectives.
Notice I use the term “healthy self-doubt.” This type of inquiry should lead to greater confidence. If you have a belief that has not just withstood time, but has evolved through trial-and-error, you can be more confident that your belief is closer to truth than if you had just accepted it without question.
This is an essential skill for a parent and it is an essential skill for parents to pass to their children.