How Little I Really Know

As I quickly skimmed a series of video clips this morning on, I had to admit to myself that I am not as intellectually humble as I sometimes think I am. Too often, I am highly opinionated and absolutely convinced my perspective on the world is the “correct” one. My certainty dismisses the possibility that I might be intellectually fallible. In reality, though, I might be wrong about matters about which I am absolutely convinced I am right. I am, too often, a victim of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. The Dunning-Kruger Effect is defined as:

a cognitive bias in which people with low ability at a task overestimate their ability. It is related to the cognitive bias of illusory superiority and comes from the inability of people to recognize their lack of ability.

Put another way, a person who lacks knowledge or expertise is not in a position to realize he lacks knowledge or expertise. In other words, I don’t know what I don’t know or don’t know what I can’t do. That stings. To acknowledge that I am not as “smart” as I think I am is painful. But a little humility probably won’t hurt me; well, it won’t hurt anything but my misplaced pride.

A social psychologist, in explaining the Dunning-Kruger Effect notes that “we all have pockets of incompetence,” therefore we all fail to recognize our own incompetence from time to time. While it’s nice to be given that opportunity to recover and burnish our pride, it would pay all of us valuable dividends to recognize that, even in our strongest opinions, we might be wrong. And kernels of truth may hide deep in positions held by people with whom we fiercely disagree about matters about which we are certain.

I found it interesting to learn that research has shown no correlation between levels of intellectual humility and intelligence (IQ). But, research found a correlation between level of intellectual humility and the way people viewed their intelligence. That is, people with high intellectual humility tend to be conservative in assessing their own intelligence/ cognitive ability, whereas people with low intellectual humility tend to believe they are more intelligent and capable of solving problems than objectively measured.

Intellectual humility tends to correlate positively with the belief that intellectual ability is malleable. That is, that we can grow “smarter” through intentional efforts. Conversely, a belief that intellect is fixed (i.e., you’re born with a limited amount of intellectual capacity), correlates with lower intellectual humility.

One of the points I found especially interesting as I viewed and read materials regarding intelligence and intellectual humility was a cautionary statement. It said, in effect: we should pay particularly close attention to people whose perspectives are at odds with our own because our perspectives may be misaligned with facts. That is, we may not know what we don’t know, while those other people may have knowledge that we don’t.

I was disappointed in myself for having failed to remember learning about the Dunning-Kruger Effect while I was in college. My disappointment vanished when I found that the research which led to the term’s development was not conducted until 25 years, more or less, after I graduated from college. So, there was some good news in my exploration this morning; I did not simply forget something I should have learned in school.

Speaking of learning: during a recent Zoom video-call with two of my brothers and my sister, I learned that my oldest brother and my sister are using time made available by “the pandemic isolation” to take online courses through the Kahn Academy. I have learned various “stuff” through the Kahn Academy during the last few years, but it has been a while. I think I may go explore what’s available to brush up on my declining knowledge of sociology and social psychology. I might learn more about the Dunning-Kruger Effect in the process. And I might become more intellectually humble as I realize just how little I really know.


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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