The Dunning-Kruger effect: When competence impacts on self-awareness.

Have you ever come across someone who clearly didn’t know what they were talking about but acted as if they were an expert? It can be frustrating, can’t it? I discovered the Dunning-Kruger effect years ago and it has helped me to keep my cool on such occasions.

Dunning and Kruger, two American psychologists, conducted a series of experiments exploring the issues of competence and self-awareness which led them to the following conclusions:

  • People with low levels of competence in an area tend to over-estimate their abilities in that area. This is, at least in part, due to the fact that their lack of competence actually hampers them from making an accurate assessment of their level of ability.
  • Conversely, people with high levels of competence in an area tend to underestimate their abilities.

You were probably already aware of one aspect of the Dunning-Kruger effect, even if you didn’t know it by name.  Adages such as “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing” or “Empty vessels make most noise” allude to the first part of their conclusion. What I find interesting is the second part; that people with high competence tend to underestimate their ability. Whilst people with low competence in a particular area don’t know enough to know that there is lots that they don’t know and therefore over-estimate their abilities, people with high competence know enough to know there is lots they don’t know and therefore consider that they know less than they actually do. Follow me?

A friend recounted to me earlier this week how she went into some of her exams in her undergraduate degree exuding calm and confidence, not because she was well prepared but rather because she actually hadn’t studied enough to realise how much she didn’t know about the topic. Meanwhile she observed that some of her very diligent classmates who had done much more study were much more stressed than she was. On reflection she recognises that it was probably partly due to the fact that they were aware that there was lots that they still didn’t know while she was comfortable in blissful ignorance!

Is there anything that can help people become more accurate in their self-assessment? Dunning and Kruger found that if people of low competence (who have an overly optimistic view of their abilities) are provided with appropriate education and feedback they become more realistic about their abilities. Once they understand a bit more about a topic, people are better placed to realise how little they know. And for the highly competent people? Once they gain some insight into how little the “incompetent” people know (for example by seeing themselves bench-marked against their less competent counterparts), they become more realistic about their own abilities. Feedback in both situations is the key to resolving the mistaken beliefs.

I mentioned earlier that this concept has helped me to keep my cool. How so? Well, I have frequent experiences of people who have little knowledge of a topic telling me how I should do things, be it in my work or parenting or just life in general. Before I understood the Dunning-Kruger effect this annoyed me if it was clear that someone didn’t have much understanding of the topic about which they were talking. Now I realise that it may be that they don’t know enough to know that they don’t know enough and they have simply overestimated their abilities!

 Reflection time

This weeks reflection is short and sweet.

Do you ever meet people who have overestimated their abilities? How do you react? Are there ways that you can help them to gain more insight? If there are, this will help them gain a better understanding of their abilities.

Conversely, do you ever meet people who are highly competent who underestimate their abilities? How do you react? Are there ways that you can help them to gain more insight? If there are, this will help them gain a better understanding of their abilities.

How about you? Are there areas where you are highly competent where you underestimate your own abilities? How could you gain a more accurate picture of your abilities?

And the last question, which is begging to be asked is this: are there areas where you over-estimate your abilities? But such a question is pointless. The very fact that you have over-estimated your ability will prevent you from seeing the error of your ways. As Dunning and Kruger put it, “people who are unskilled … suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.”  So, if you have over-estimated your abilities, let’s hope someone you know reads this blog-post and will help you out!

What is your purpose?

7th April 2017

What is your purpose?  It’s a deep question which you will find either incredibly easy or difficult to answer, depending on how aware you are of yourself. I couldn’t answer this question for years… decades in fact. I only really started to understand my purpose in the past year or two. Before that my identity was tied to distinct roles in my life… Catriona the student, the pharmacist, the mother, the leader, the employee, the writer or the sailor. What got a bit confusing was that were slightly differing versions of me, depending on the role I was fulfilling at any given time. For example, as a pharmacist, I embraced detail and as a writer I preferred to think creatively; as a mother, I set a direction and as a student I took direction.

Which is the real me? The answer is I am all and I am none of the roles I fulfil. None are me in my entirety and I am none entirely. So, who am I? I now realise that there is a “me” which underpins everything. I have values which shape everything I do and there is a purpose to my life which gets expressed slightly differently in each of my roles. At this point in time I believe that my purpose is to be a catalyst for meaningful growth.  Maybe it will change as I do, but for now it is a purpose which threads through everything I do. The word “catalyst” anchors me to my chemistry and pharmacy background and nicely describes my affinity for precipitating or accelerating change. I like making things happen or helping to accelerate change that has already started. Not just any change. Change which results in growth.  More importantly, growth that I believe to be meaningful. I am interested in growth which results in a better world.

Once I am clear on my purpose, all the different manifestations of “me” make sense. Through parenting I am enabling growth of my children. Through my work, I facilitate growth of the team, of individuals and of my wider environment. Through writing, I hope to provide support to others in their growth; thus, the concept of Reflect to Prosper. Knowing my purpose makes it easier for me to decide what I should do. If I’m unsure about what direction to take, I ask myself which path is going to align with my purpose and values. This generally leads me to things that I enjoy because they are meaningful to me.

Once I understand my purpose it also helps me to make sense of the times in the past when I felt disillusioned. When a job feels like it’s draining your enthusiasm, you’ll often find that some aspect of the work or the environment is impinging on your values or is preventing you from aligning with your purpose. Einstein is widely credited with saying Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live it’s whole life believing that it is stupid”I believe that we all have a unique purpose in life. I also believe that, sadly, many of us never discover what that purpose is which means that, at best, we live lives where we don’t achieve our full potential and, at worst, we spend our lives believing that we’re stupid because we don’t quite fit where we are. Everyone is a genius at something but, too often, we never discover what that something is and we spend our lives feeling like something hasn’t quite clicked for us. To quote Les Brown …

The graveyard is the richest place on earth, because it is here that you will find all the hopes and dreams that were never fulfilled, the books that were never written, the songs that were never sung, the inventions that were never shared, the cures that were never discovered, all because someone was too afraid to take that first step, keep with the problem, or determined to carry our their dream.” 

Identifying your purpose may seem challenging. It took me quite a while to recognise the patterns and to identify an underlying theme. But it was worth the effort. I discovered a book in my local library called Brand You, by John Purkiss and David Royston Lee, which provides a nice structure which can help you figure it out.

When I gave a copy of the Brand You book to each of my work colleagues as a Christmas gift, I confessed that I had been considering buying a Nespresso coffee machine for the office before deciding that this, individual gift, would be more meaningful. One of my colleagues diplomatically offered to gather up all the copies of the book that I had given to the team as gifts and organise their return so that he could recoup the refund and buy the coffee machine instead. So maybe this approach isn’t everyone’s cup of tea…. or coffee!


Reflection time


Are you open to the idea that we all have a unique purpose? Or do you fundamentally disagree with the concept? Feel free to share your comments if you disagree. I’d be interested to hear your perspective.

If you are open to the idea that you have a unique purpose, do you understand yours? Does it guide you in deciding what is right for you? If so, perhaps you could share what helped you do identify this, through the comments section of this blog-post.

If you aren’t clear on your purpose, reflect on the questions listed below and see if you can identify patterns that might point you in the right direction. The questions raised here aren’t intended to be a comprehensive, step-by-step guide to identifying your purpose. Rather, they are prompts for reflection, designed to stimulate your thinking and to help you gather clues as you try to identify patterns.

  • Think back over your life and think about the times when you felt fulfilled. Think about what you were doing and what it was that made you feel that way. As a simple example, if you really enjoyed being involved in a musical performance, what it was specifically that you enjoyed about it. Was it the satisfaction of mastering a difficult piece of music? Or the enjoyment of being part of a bigger group? Or the thrill of performing alone? Or the fact that you were bringing joy to others? Or savouring the culmination of hours of practice and preparation.  The same activity can serve different purposes so try to identify specifically what it was that evoked fulfilment.
  • Think about activities that you love, or have loved, doing. A friend of mine asks “What makes your heart sing?” This may provide responses which are similar to those from the first question, but is likely to provide some additional clues. Don’t be afraid to delve deep into your past. Maybe there was something in your childhood that you adored doing but that got pushed to one side as you grew up.  What clues can you find here? Again, for each activity reflect on what it was specifically about that activity that brought you joy. For example, people who enjoy writing might do so for many different. One person may enjoy writing stories for the creative freedom, another for the purpose of creating interesting tales and others, like me, to help them explore particular themes.
  • Where does your attention go? Are there things that you daydream about? Things you imagine that one day you might do? Do you have a fantasy about what you’d do if you were free from commitments? Our dreams and fantasies can provide great insight into our secret ambitions.
  • Do you find yourself regularly being approached for a particular purpose? Do people seem to recognise a particular talent within you? For example, a calm head in a crises, an ability to rally the troops, your creativity? Sometimes people will approach you simply because you possess a particular skill-set but it may also be an indication of an inherent talent that others can see in you. Thinking about this can provide important clues.
  • Are there any areas in your life in which you receive consistent positive feedback? It’s important to listen to the feedback from the world around you. Sometimes other people are the key to helping us identify our purpose. Think about the compliments that you receive. Can you see any patterns?
  • In the course of your day-to-day life, can you identify the things that seem to suck your energy and the things that seem to energise you? Reflecting on this can help you gather clues.
  • Finally, are there any people with whom you can talk about this topic or your responses to the questions listed above? People you trust who might be able to see the patterns that you can’t? Sometimes the people around us can see our purpose far earlier than we can.

Once you have reflected on these questions, consider if you can identify any patterns? Is anything emerging that can help guide your thinking about your purpose. I would encourage you to mull over these questions over time. Think about them as you go about your day. Observe where your attention and energy goes. Over time its likely that your purpose will become clear. And once it does, my view is that this makes everything else clearer too.

What’s Stopping You?

24th March 2017

For the past two years, I have been thinking about setting up a blog. I am passionate about the power of reflection and I want to write regular, short pieces that prompt useful reflection for myself, which might be of interest, or use, to others. Last year, I gave myself a deadline … to start writing a blog before I was 40 years old. Today, on the day of my 40th birthday, time is running out!  I was born in the evening, so I reckon that as long as I publish my first blog before this evening, I can claim that I met my goal!  This time yesterday I didn’t have a website, I had no clue about blogging and I hadn’t written a thing.  This is truly a dash to the finish line!

Why have I procrastinated for so long? Writing is something I enjoy doing. Blogging interests me. This is a self-identified goal. So why on earth have I harbored this idea for two years, doing nothing about it whilst berating myself for not getting started? The idea has squatted in my brain, occupying valuable real estate without paying its way….and I let it. Excuses ebbed and flowed. I don’t have enough time was a common one. And yet it always came back to one recurring thought… I want to do it … and yet I don’t. And there’s my answer. I wanted to start blogging and at the same time, I didn’t.  Even though I have lots of reasons for wanting to blog, I have as many, and more, for not wanting to blog. Who am I to start a blog? Will people laugh at me? How do I even go about it? Who would want to hear about my ideas anyway? Who do I think I am? Am I able?….. and the self-doubt floods through. It’s called cognitive dissonance… the discomfort experienced when we are stuck between two ideas, of wanting to do something and yet, at the same time, not wanting to do it. There is the weight of desire on one side of the scales, and the weight of resistance on the other. It’s very difficult to make progress if the weight of resistance exceeds the weight of desire.

So what can you do? Put simply, you must tip the scales in your favour. You must either make the reasons for doing what you want to do so compelling that you simply have to act or, alternatively, reduce the doubts and fears to a level that make it possible to move forward. For me, two things happened yesterday that finally tipped the scales in my favour. Firstly, it dawned on me that I was almost out of time. I had set myself a deadline to do this … my 40th birthday. If I didn’t write a blog by the time I turned 40, I would have failed to meet my own deadline. And I hate failing. So that certainly helped me. In general, self-imposed deadlines work well for me. But, in this case it wasn’t enough to propel me into action. I still didn’t know HOW to do what I wanted. That’s when the second thing happened. Over the course of a birthday lunch with my work-colleagues (Thanks team!) I mentioned my desire to start blogging, secretly glum about the fact that it looked like I was going to miss my target. Instantly, Frank, a colleague, started moving the idea forward for me. He prompted me to think about website domain names I might like and promised to set it up for me so that I could start my blogging journey on my 40th birthday! Yesterday evening I found, to my surprise, that was available as a domain name. Frank set me up with WordPress, and here I am! Frank took lots of weight off the “resistance” side of the scales for me, by sorting out the scary technical stuff. That allowed me, finally, to get started.


Reflection time.


So, how about you? Are there things you want to do, and could do, but don’t? Are there times when you feel “stuck” between desire and resistance? Do you want to but, at the same time, don’t want to do something? If so, it might be useful to take some time to reflect on what’s going on.

Firstly, imagine an old-fashioned weighing scales and think about where the balance of weight currently lies. Does it lie on the side of desire or resistance? If you haven’t yet started doing what it is you want to do, it’s likely that the scales are currently tipped in favour of resistance.

Next, take time to think more deeply about the weight of your desire. Why do you want to do this thing? Writing your thoughts out will help the reflective process. Make a note of all the reasons you have for wanting to make this happen and then work through them one by one. Which reasons are most important to you? Are they compelling? How can you make each reason more compelling? What would be a good motivator for you? How can you increase the weight of desire? Who or what could help you make this happen?

Next, think more deeply about the weight of your resistance. What’s stopping you? Again, writing your thoughts out will help the reflective process. Make a note of all the things that make this difficult and then work through them one by one.  What are the biggest barriers? How can they be overcome, or at least made smaller? Who or what could help you? How can you reduce the weight of resistance?

And finally, turn this reflection into action which will help you prosper.  Reflect on what you have written. Can you increase the weight of desire about this goal sufficiently to propel you into action? Is there more work that you need to do to work through the barriers? Or are you still stuck? If so, can you make peace with yourself that there are legitimate reasons for not making progress? Can you revisit your aims and change them so they are more achievable? Or is it actually worth progressing at all? Sometimes the bravest thing is to do nothing. Sometimes we want to do something simply because we feel we should, but in truth we’re not that motivated by it. If that’s the case, get rid of the squatters in your brain. Free the space up to think about something you do care about and progress that instead so that you can prosper.

As for me?  Let’s see how long it takes to to produce a second article!