A Q&A That Will Help You Make Fewer Silly Mistakes

Photo: Cornell University

Reddit is running an Ask Me Anything with Dr. David Dunning, a Cornell psychologist who studies, among other things, how people evaluate their own abilities, and it’s very much worth checking out. Dunning is probably best known for the so-called Dunning-Kruger effect, a bias he laid out in a paper he co-authored in 1999 (PDF), which argues, in short, that people without a lot of competence in a given area tend to overrate how good they are at the thing in question. That’s because they suffer from a “dual burden”: Not only are they bad at, say, bird-watching, but they also know so little about it that they lack the ability to discern that they can’t tell a sparrow from a skylark.

In the AMA, he explains many of the practical day-to-day implications of this bias, which leads people to make a lot of easily preventable mistakes. This response about how to avoid the Dunning-Kruger effect, in particular, contains a lot of useful information:

Get competent. Always be learning.

Absent that, get mentors or a “kitchen cabinet” of people whose opinions you’ve found useful in the past.

Or, know when the problem is likely to be most common, such as when you are doing something new. For myself, for instance, I know how to give a lecture or a public talk. I do it all the time. However, just last month I had to buy a car, for only the fourth time in my life. Knowing this is an uncommon thing for me to do, I spent a lot of time [researching] cars … and also how to buy them.

Our most recent research also suggests one should be wary of quick and impulsive decisions … that those who get caught in DKE errors less are those who deliberate over them, at least a little. People who jump to conclusions are the most prone to overconfident error.

And they also do so in a particular way. I have found it useful to explicitly consider how I might be wrong or missing in a decision. What’s wrong with this car deal that seems so attractive? What have I left out in this response about avoiding the DKE?

I am often asked if being confident is fundamentally good or bad. I say it has to be both, in its proper place. A general on the day of battle needs to be confident so that his or her troops execute the battle plan with efficiency. Doing so saves lives. However, before that day, I want a cautious general who over-plans — one who wants more troops, more ordnance, better contingency plans — so that he or she is best prepared for the day of battle. Who wants an overconfident general who underestimates the number of troops and ordnance he or she will need to prevail?

I think that analogy works for athletes, too. They don’t use confidence to become complacent, but to use confidence to put in the extra effort and strategizing that will help them excel.

There’s lots of other good advice in the AMA, so you should go check it out.

A Q&A That Will Help You Make Fewer Mistakes