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Heard Of The Dunning-Kruger Effect? Here's Why It Could Change Your Life

10/07/2017 15:35

"Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge"... that's according to Charles Darwin, at least.

The idea that stupidity results in an inappropriate level of confidence isn't particularly new, but it wasn't until the 1990s that we finally got a name for it. When McArthur Wheeler confidently robbed two banks in broad daylight, with his face covered in lemon juice, police were baffled - as was Wheeler himself; when apprehended all he could say was "but I wore the juice!"

As it turned out, Wheeler thought that lemon juice could be used as invisible ink, and would therefore make his face invisible to security cameras - he even conducted an experiment that "proved" this. The problem was that Wheeler was an idiot, and all his experiment did was contribute to his huge overestimation of his own competence. This insane level of stupidity and overconfidence inspired the study, by David Dunning and Justin Kruger, into why some people are too stupid to realise how stupid they are, and the Dunning-Kruger Effect was born.

If you didn't know the name before now, you've definitely seen it in action. Examples of the Dunning-Kruger Effect are everywhere: it's what convinced a reality star and his supporters that he could be president; it's why that tosser at work can never admit he's useless (it's never your fault, is it Neil?!); and it's what convinced Stoph Demetriou he could do an hour-long solo show at the Edinburgh Fringe.

OK, let's nip the whole talking about myself in third-person thing in the bud. When I was researching for my show, Stoph Demetriou: The Dunning-Kruger Effect, one thing that stood out for me was the focus on overconfidence. Because it stands to reason that if people are high on confidence, then they will be low on self-doubt.

The self-delusion that comes from overconfidence is a powerful thing - and we're in the middle of a narcissism epidemic so there's a lot of deluded self-confidence about. I think most of us are told that we can do anything if we just believe in ourselves - but that's not really enough, is it? Belief is what you tend to have in lieu of actual knowledge. No amount of belief is going to make me successfully carry out open-heart surgery, negotiate Brexit or accurately describe Finland. I'm just not qualified in those fields, but a lack of qualification doesn't stop some people, even though Finland is very big place and is notoriously difficult to describe.

And there's nothing wrong with having a healthy bit of self-confidence and believing in your ability, but it doesn't make up for the fact that sometimes our ability just isn't high enough. For every Donald Trump or Kanye West that were carried to dizzying heights by their self-confidence alone, there are plenty of Rod Hulls who asked Emu to hold the ladder.

The thing is, everybody is unskilled in lots of areas. For most people this is where that little voice of paranoia pipes up and helpfully points out that you can't really do something, you don't know what you're talking about or, in my case, that you might be making a tit of yourself. Although productive paranoia can be useful in making you question your actions, it does seem quite cruel that the thing that makes you strive to be better is also the thing that makes you overthink every decision and hate yourself a little... my dad and paranoia have a lot in common.

So, while confidence and paranoia in moderation can be good, too much self belief means you get caught robbing a bank with no form of disguise, too much self-doubt can mean you never even attempt to rob a bank at all... and that could have really been your calling in life.

What's become clear during my research for my Fringe debut is just how far people can go with blind self-delusion -and that means that I'll continue to ignore the voice of paranoia in my head (even if it's quite productive sometimes.)

Wise move? I'll let you know. But honestly it could benefit everyone to embrace self-delusion a little bit more. It seems over-confident idiots have the run of the place right now - they're reaping all of the awards while everybody else feels the pain of their idiocy.

As the philosopher Bertrand Russell (who I literally only heard of about two minutes ago) stated, "One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision." So basically ignorance is bliss, and if you can't beat them, join them.

Stoph Demetriou: The Dunning-Kruger Effect is on August 4-28 at the Laughing Horse at the Three Sisters during the Edinburgh Fringe.

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