While clicking around the Internet over the weekend I found myself on the Cognitive Bias page on Wikipedia, which is incredibly interesting. Um. Unless of course I’m just fooling myself.
Anyway, eventually I found my way to a page about the Dunning-Kruger effect. Have you heard of this?
The basic theory is that when people are incompetent at something they tend to lack the ability to realize it and they overrate their abilities relative to others. Meanwhile, people who actually are good at something tend to underrate their abilities and may as a result suffer from lack of confidence.
It got me thinking of all those insanely talented writers out there in fits of despair thinking they’re not any good. Could it be that they’re just suffering from a little Dunning-Kruger effect?
Take it away Wikipedia!
The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which “people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it”. The unskilled therefore suffer from illusory superiority, rating their own ability as above average, much higher than in actuality; by contrast the highly skilled underrate their abilities, suffering from illusory inferiority. This leads to a perverse result where less competent people will rate their own ability higher than more competent people. It also explains why actual competence may weaken self-confidence because competent individuals falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. “Thus, the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.”
Interesting! So where do I fit if I can recognize when something I write is quality material, but I still think there is room for improvement–LOTS of improvement–in the rest of my writing. I know everyone has good days and bad days, but how do you learn to recognize when you're just being too self critical and when you're being realistic?
Anita Saxena says
This just makes things more complicated. It's one thing to think you suck. But, now you're telling me if I think I suck then I'm most likely pretty good. But then if I think I'm good, then it means that I probably suck. Right?
This confirms it. I'm brilliant! Wait, if I think that, then I really suck. So, I suck!
Emily White says
A bit of a Catch 22. This explanation gives me hope that maybe, just maybe I have talent. But wait, now I think I might be good. D'oh!
Raquel Byrnes says
Wow, that would be great to find out about myself.
Amber J. Gardner says
Okay, but what about the writer who switches from thinking they're good to they're bad, and when people say they're good, they don't believe them, but secretly think they can be future bestsellers and/or Oscar winners, but hate to say that outloud?
You know, like me? XD
Ah but this fails to discuss the bipolar effect on this syndrome.
One week the person feels like a writing superhero, the next a writing toilet brush.
Okay, so excuse my stupidity, but how does the title reflect what you just quoted?
@ anon at 10:16, glad you liked it. A little bored at work and decided to put forth a humble attempt at humor. I thought it was funny, hope some other people did, too.
Yes, anon, you were funny. I am smiling, but I don't get the title of this post.
Sliding on the Edge says
Now I have to re-read that WIP and figure out if a good writer wrote it or a writer with a super ego did. Arrrg! 🙂
Okay, I have to laugh at this.
The reason for the laughter is simple. I started out in editorial. I was darn good at my job, but the team appreciated me even more for the way I could get them back up and running before tech support made their way up to the editorial floor.
I just didn't get why they thought it was so difficult. I clearly had no affinity with computers. My one attempt at a program (when I was 13) had been a complete failure because of a bug I didn't notice until after the class.
A friend kicked me down to Systems a couple years later, and I'm now a freelance programmer as well as writing.
The crux of my inability to see my computer skills? My mother taught me how to write batch files. If my mother taught me, therefore everyone's mothers taught them, therefore it was nothing special and everyone could do it. Right?
So yes, if it's relatively easy, then anyone can do it and we're not any better at it than the average joe. Makes perfect sense to me, even when it should make no sense at all.
Rachel Hamm says
Wow. I'd never heard of this, but I guess it explains why I always got A's on papers in high school and college that I thought sucked! And I'm not saying that to be conceited. I would literally turn in a paper and want to vomit because I thought it was so terrible and it would always be returned with an A!
But now I wonder if I think I suck at writing fiction because I actually do suck at writing fiction, or because I am actually competent but have this syndrome…
I think that most people who can pen novels must have a degree of intelligence. And intelligent people know if they are not good at something and should call it a day. The trouble is the people who are any good don't necessarily doubt their ability, they doubt the reaction it will receive by others and feel embarassed to admit if they feel it is good. Because admitting that you think the work you've slaved over for months and agonised over every line of dialogue, is good, would make you sound pretentious in the eyes of the people around you. Confidence, or over confidence, is not a pretty trait, but to continuously play the martyr can be damned annoying too. My work isn't prize winning material but if i thought i was totally crap i wouldn't waste my time or anyone else's. i trudge on , in confusion.
Zoe Courtman says
Wow, does that ever make me feel better!! I'm ALWAYS in the oily doldrums when writing, doing the Writer Flail, feeling that the chapters suck when…maybe they don't after all? Huh. *brightens*
Ann Marie Wraight says
Thoroughly enjoyed your thoughts on this; studied social psychology in the UK years ago and it made me feel young again!! I'd just like to share my muse (or views) with you on this…
So, you lack confidence? Don't miss the fun!
You're brilliant? You're Einstein? Use too much the pun?
Don't despair, don't give up we're here to support
Dunning 'n' Kruger don't suggest to abort!
The key is to love, to enjoy what you do
THEN revisions, beta readers review and REVIEW!
NO – of course I do NOT write poetry but Young Adult…but maybe it really does suck more than my poetry?
Anyway, I totally agree with Ted Cross who said "The more you learn the less you know"
Brian Miller says
interesting – i've always known that i have an inferiority complex but sometimes i have a superiority complex. My parents keep telling myself that i underestimate myself when i don't think that's true!
Donna Tagliaferri says
I am now conflicted as to whether or not I am as terrible as I think I am or better than I think I am. Before reading this I was safely in the harbor of self doubt…now I must sail out into the waters of exploration…..oh no! I am just as awful as I thought….
Oh god, this is worrying me because I am confident in my writing for the most part : I think it's mostly because many people have told me they liked it and now I roll with the idea. Then again, I've also had to retrain myself to stop thinking so many negative thoughts so I won't become miserably depressed. Maybe it's a part of that.
This may explain Congress
Very interesting indeed. Gives one pause for thought.
Anne Macaulay says
Nathan, this post about Dunning-Kruger Effect was weirdly comforting. I dunno if I'm a good writer or a poor one. All I know is, I get physically ill before my writing group meets. I cannot bear to hear my own words being read. No one says anything mean about my stuff, but still I cringe. It's so bad that I wish I had some of those feelings of superiority. It would mean that I would submit more often.