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.”
Marilyn Peake says
Glad you didn't mind me chiming in. Great discussion here.
I totally buy into this theory. I didn't realize it had an actual Proper Noun Effect name, but I've said it for years. Back when I managed a bunch of tech writers and editors, I saw it every time it was time for reviews, as well as at other times.
The really good people tend to know there's room to improve and more to learn. People who think they're at the top of their game often haven't learned enough to know they don't know it all.
There are exceptions, of course, but I saw it all the time.
Okay, now the second part of this interesting discussion is about writer recruitment.
This is a management problem.
How do you recruit writers who may be very good, but either low in confidence and/or doubt themselves easily.
Perhaps the current system of struggle/rejection/pushing against odds and competition would work very well for the business types who run the publishing world. But it may be the exact wrong way to recruit more sensitive but talented writers.
And before someone says, "oh well, some drop off the wayside, but we'll use the ones that are left" let me remind you that (I've been told) 85% of books do not earn out.
I believe there is a better way to recruit writers who tend to doubt themselves easily, especially under pressure.
Nathan, I think you may be onto something here.
In fact, I think you very much are on to something very important here.
My two cents and two long posts, for what it's worth. 🙂
t c sherf says
Thanks for the post, Nathan. I've been getting mired down in a swamp of self-doubts lately. It helps to think that maybe there's a better reason for those doubts than the alternative–that I'm really not very good!
Seriously, your post made me want to sit down and write right now. So, thanks!
Ishta Mercurio says
What a great discussion! Nathan, thank you for this post.
I can definitely see this theory in action – I know plenty of genuinely talented people who, while obviously successful and talented, don't think of themselves as the Queen or King Bee, and continue to learn and develop their craft.
I do wonder, as a few others have commented, if the nature of the way careers in the arts tend to develop contributes to this. In theatre, writing, music, dance, etc., – probably because art and creative expression are personal experiences for both the creator and the recipient – you work and work and work on something until it is just right and then you face rejection after rejection, trying to find that "best fit" with an agent or casting director or editor. Many agents and editors have said: "If I don't personally fall in love with it, I just won't take it on, even if it's really great." In theatre and film, you can give an awesome audition, but not get cast because you're too short or too skinny or too tan or you remind the casting director of his awful Aunt Nellie who embarrassed him in front of the whole family last Hannukah. The arts business is basically a business of rejection; getting the job is the gravy.
So we have a bunch of really talented people, who have honed their craft for years, who still struggle with confidence because despite their talent, they're having trouble finding that "match made in Heaven" that will boost their career up to the next level.
I am extremely lacking in the confidence department as far as writing goes…this post made me actually believe for one second that I might be alright. So thanks!
Was this why I was so surprised when they told me I was going to graduate summa cum laude?
This reminds me of a quote (paraphrased): The trouble with the world is that fools are so sure of themselves and geniuses so unsure.
Does anybody know who said this?
So THAT explains George W. Bush's presidency…
Interesting. It might explain why some really talented young writers I've read in the past are so crippled by insecurity that they never submit anything for publication. Such a shame. Now we need to know the antidote, if there is one.
I'm so glad I read this. It gives me hope to think my lack of confidence might actually have a postive side.
At the same time it neatly explains the Republican behavior in the House.
WitLiz Today says
40 score and seven years ago, there was what was known as the Melville-Shakespeare effect, being that the first wrote an allegory likening whale hunting to becoming an author, (post-modern interpretation) and the second, wrote allegorical plays about the neo-primitive, oxymoronic human condition and the vein of self-doubt that runs through all of us from the time we're born; the consequences of which, (referring to the latter), can lead to making bad choices in the blackest hours of our self-doubt, unless, as a writer we liken ourselves unto the first, in which case self-doubt is overcome by sticking best-selling harpoons into the gargantuan white pie hole of whaledom known as publishing; thus promulgating the notion that sure-fire success is achieved not only through hard work and sacrifice of self, but also through the care and feeding of the writer’s ego; that is to say, once the writer has conquered all self-doubt in a whale of a big way!
Unless! said writer maketh the mistake of reading Melville and Shakespeare before conquering all of this self-doubt; in which case, the cup of self-denigration may overfloweth and lead to a Shakespearean comedy of epic proportions! in the which the writer borrows Melville's harpoon and puts a spectacular end to writing blubber, I mean rubbish!!
For evermore, quoth the Raven. For evermore.
(Warning: poetic license currently under suspension for WBS. Shhh)
Nathan, this is totally unrelated to this post, but I've been trying to send you a query and the email keeps getting returned to me as being unable to be sent. Any suggestions on how to remedy this?
Nathan Bransford says
We're having some work e-mail problems so hold off for now. I'm hoping things will be resolved tomorrow. Sorry for the inconvenience.
I see this all the time in my work. I teach art – drawing and painting.
New students often boast how good they are and how they don't need to take any drawing, only to learn later that it was what they needed most. I think part of it comes from the fact that they don't know enough about the subject to be objective. They literally can't see the flaws in their work. Later, when they learn how to make things more accurate, they notice all the things they need to fix. It can take a hit on their confidence, but I only have to remind them that this is the first step to really being an artist. 🙂
This thread has been very interesting to follow!
At the end of the day, I think it's all about keeping things in perspective.
This was one study, focussed on a particular research question, tested on a predetermined sample group (numbers, size, cultural composition), with a particular bias, a particular testing methodology and a particular assessment methodology to glean a particular set of results.
But it's still just one study, that tucks into one area of cognitive theory, and it has to be examined in a much broader context before results can be applied.
We human beings are so complex that we can't be so easily compartmentalized and judgements made on an isolated basis about any aspect of our personality, cognitive capability, behaviour, etc.
In and of itself the results show something, but we don't know who paid for the research, why it was established in the first place, on what basis the questions were formulated, etc. So, perspective is a good thing…and it just means that, without too much angst, we can take something away from it that teaches us something about ourselves. Or helps us ask another question which might lead us to learn something about ourselves, particularly in relation to writing (in this context).
Ok, I know I sound boring, but it was fun to read, and I admit it!
Great point and so universally true.
Bernard S. Jansen says
Most people live in the area of "unconcious incompetence". We don't know we're not any good, and we may even think we're brilliant, or that "anyone can do it". Think: "Money for nothing and your chicks for free" (Dire Straits).
Some of us have the devestating ephiphany that they are no good. This brings us to "concious incompetence". Our competence hasn't changed; we're just now aware of it.
Slowly, we may – or may not – climb our way toward "concious competence".
The brilliant geniuses amongst us skips the above steps and lands in "unconcious competence". They're the best, but they don't know it. Their competence unconciously judges their own work and makes them feel inferior.
Stephen Prosapio says
This theory helps justify my practice of trying to read middle-of-the-road novels while writing. When writing really *great* stuff, I feel dejected as though I'll never get to that level. Reading bad stuff just makes me frustrated. There's that window of work in between that helps both entertain me and stimulate my brain without making me feel like a non-skilled writer.
Peter Dudley says
I googled drunken-kegger effect but didn't come up with the same link. I think the internet might be broken because if there's anything I'm really good at, it's googling.
This reminds me of a quote from Steven Pressfield's The War of Art:
"If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), "Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?" chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death."
Donna Hole says
Hmm; I wonder which I suffer from?
Guess it'll take landing an Agent to find out.
Claire Dawn says
I have often wondered, while watching American Idol, how some people got that far and noone ever told them they sounded horrible. But now I wonder if people told them and they just refused to hear it.
Also, since I think my writing's crap, I am clearly in line for a Pulitzer in the not too distant future! 😀
PS, what on earth were you doing to discover this?
And all this time I thought I was being a perfectionist or too hard on myself! Lovely post Nathan!
Is this a case of nature vs nurture of someone's ego, or lack there of, with a stroke of to what degree a person believes in their ability to do and accomplish a particular something?
If it means my writing's awesome, I'm all for it. 😀
Kate Evangelista says
What happens to those who are good but people tell them they suck? Or, is that a whole different can of worms?
Kate Evangelista says
And then, what about those people who really suck but people around them tell them they are good? And around we go.
I get it!! This is why teens think they know everything.
Survival mechanism. If we felt this overwhelmed from the start we'd never accomplish anything.
Wow, in that case I must be fantastic, 'cause everybody I know lacks confidence in my writing 😉
I have confidence in my ability to develop a good story. The application part, using the words to tell it, maybe not as much. I'm of the opinion that one can always be a better writer. There is no end to that struggle, no end goal where one can say, "I'm the best writer I can be." I guess in this regard, there should always be some level of lacking in confidence with writers, because how can you now where you are along that continuum? I certainly don't. I just know I have a lot of room to grow as a writer. Readers who like your work certainly help. Having an editor buy your book helps even more.
I make no pretenses to assume I have this "cognitive bias" instead of just being bad 😀
Well, now when my husband gets weird about me telling him, on those days, that I absolutely suck and should probably do something else, I can say, "No, no! This is good! Because what I'm really saying is that I'm fantastic. You dig?"
M. Hockaday says
Hmmm, I would love to think I suffer from this effect, but I could just be fooling myself and really not be that great of a writer. Thanks for the insight though 🙂 Self-deprication – it's like the # 1 trait of knowing you are in fact a writer.
Makes sense. I've always been told I'm my own worst critic and it follows what that's saying.
James Scott Bell says
Among my professional writer friends, it seems the more prolific, the more this effect takes place. One friend says she thinks it's only a matter of time before someone rips back the curtain, points and shouts "Fraud!"
Also, I think standards go up, we know more the more we write, and see ever more clearly how high we have to jump. But I also think that's a good thing, an inducement to keep working hard.
I don't know, I think some of this might be envious by this Dunning-Kruger person. Either you have talent or you don't. Writing a fiction novel has never been a chore or dilemma for me.
At the risk of sounding a tad arrogant, some of we writers are born with talent. To formulate a basic analogy, it's like the dude from Northern Indiana stepping up and taking the big shot against Kansas at the end of the game. There's no easy replication for it—why some people like he and I have the ability to come out of nowhere and shock the world, accept to say that it is God given in the genes. You need to have confidence when you sit down and write. Close your eyes, see the story and let it flow. As my sister said when I told her about my idea for the book: You can't hide genius.
Now, before people start soliciting me for help or advice or asking me how I do it so easily, let me be clear that unlike Nathan, I don't have a blog, am not an agent or query rep, and I am just starting out my novel. To be honest with you, time is tight, which is the main (better yet, only) reason I have yet to write a fiction book, I just happened to see this post which struck a chord and I just wanted to add my two cents to the mix.
Malia Sutton says
This certainly takes "The Peter Principle" to another level.
Elliot Grace says
okay…so now we can all safely claim that we suck…from a medical standpoint:)
Peter Dudley says
Hey, Malia… should I take that personally?
Malia Sutton says
Peter Dudley…Only if you've already reached your own personal level of incompetence…lol 🙂
Peter Dudley says
But… isn't that the point of this post? How will I know when I've reached my level of incompetence?
My wife is no help in this matter. According to her, I've been exceeding maximum incompetence for several years. So I guess I can be proud of overachieving in at least one area.
Sharon A. Lavy says
I am such a horrible pitcher. And it is for one of those reasons I'm sure. But which? Hmmm
Richard Levangie says
I see the Dunning-Kruger affect repeatedly in my work as a activist fighting against global warming. Folks who don't have a university degree in science seem to think that can go toe-to-toe with PhDs who have been in the field for 30 years, and who have won every scientific award out there.
It's ridiculous. And it's one reason that I've taken this year off to finish my young adult novel.
When I was young, I fell into camp one. Over confident. Now that I'm older and wiser, I fall into camp two. Now, if I could just find a happy medium between them. 😀
Josin L. McQuein says
This is the scientific principle behind 97% of contestants on American Idol.
(Though, in their defense, they probably do sound better to themselves than they do to others. Sound passing through bone into the ear – what you hear when you speak – has a better tone than sound passing through open air – what others hear when you speak.)
Robert A Meacham says
I find myself digesting so many different writing styles and sometimes unclear of the voice I want to project. At least I want my material to be worthy for readers. I am always critical of my work.
Moira Young says
Perry Robles (and others who've expressed similar sentiments) –
I, too, often bounce between the two extremes. It becomes a constant war between confidence and humility, and we need both.
IMHO, it's important to write with confidence (else I'd never get anything written) and then accept feedback with humility. Rinse and repeat as needed.
Really, the Dunning-Kruger effect just points to the need to be more self-aware than anything. For example, I like to constantly remind myself that the learning never stops. I'll still have a lot to learn even when I do get published (and I say "when" instead of "if" not to be egotistical, but because I don't think it's wrong to treat it as an attainable goal). Hopefully, if I stay in touch with myself, I won't go too far in either direction.
LOL @ Anon 757 = beautiful illustration of the idea of the overconfident for no reason writer, well struck!
Kathryn Magendie says
*laughing* – what Abby said about "American Idol Syndrome!"
Sometimes writers don't recognize what's "good" in their writing. I mean, someone will contace me about something in a story, essay, or my book, and say "*this part* was *insert something really nice about my stuff here*" and I'll think, "That? That part is good? But. . . but, I was going to delete that part" . . . good thing I didn't delete it *laugh* and alternatively, the very thing I thought people would say "*this and so* was pure GEEEEN-NEEE-US!" is passed over like the bread from the day before yesterday.