On being wrong

“Learn to enjoy being wrong,” a friend had told me once, as I stood clutching my high school diploma, all hope and youthful optimism, glad to have finally finished secondary education. This was four years ago, and I remember the urgency in her eyes as she told me, “Intellectual humility is as rare as it is important.”

It wasn’t until a few weeks ago, when I stumbled upon an interesting study on the Dunning-Kruger effect, that I was reminded of what she had said.

For the unaware, the Dunning-Kruger effect is a phenomenon characterized by relatively unskilled people thinking very highly of themselves. It is a cognitive bias in the form of illusory superiority, and people who suffer from this condition mistakenly think they are more skilled at something than they really are and think they are right even (or especially) when they are wrong.

Examples can be as downright absurd as an entire bank robbery thwarted — the robber had entered without any sort of disguise to hide his identity except for lemon juice on his face, which he mistakenly believed would prevent surveillance cameras from recording his face after he read that the juice can be used as invisible ink. But other, more mundane studies explored how college kids can think themselves funnier than they really are, or how students with the worst grammar erroneously think themselves to be highly proficient.

David Dunning, from whom one-half of the phenomenon’s name is taken, describes it as the incompetent being utterly unable to recognize their own incompetence — precisely because of their lack of skill or understanding. They do not have the capacity, skill, or experience to enable them to understand that they lack those very things.

What is frustrating about the findings of the many studies conducted on this phenomenon is that the incompetent are rarely ever cautious or uncertain about their self-assessment, and are often, as Dunning puts it, “blessed with an inappropriate confidence.” Not only are they unable to recognize their own lack of skill, they also consistently fail to recognize genuine skill in their peers.

And so I kept on reading, fascinated by the wealth of comical but also disturbing cases described in several studies. After a while I stumbled upon a related, but decidedly different phenomenon, which describes the inability of high-achievers to internalize their own accomplishments.

The condition, called the Impostor Syndrome or, in other studies, Neurotic Imposture, is named that way because those who suffer from it feel like frauds or impostors due to an inability to believe that they are deserving of their own success, even when they really, objectively are.

Majority of the cases studied are of people in the corporate world, and earlier studies estimated that around two out of five successful individuals would consider themselves impostors at one point or another. This is because people with Neurotic Imposture fail to recognize their own abilities, and mistakenly think that tasks they find easy also come easy for their peers. This leads many of those who suffer from the syndrome to feel like their achievements are purely due to luck, personal charm, or timing — anything, really, aside from their own skill — and are ridden with guilt over what they perceive to be their own trickery.

In other words, those who suffer from Neurotic Imposture are the opposites of those under the Dunning-Kruger effect, because where the latter overestimate their own abilities, the former drastically underestimate them in the belief that others are just as good or are even better than they are. The former are commonly mistaken about the abilities of others, while the latter are more obscenely mistaken about themselves. Those suffering from Neurotic Imposture have too much self-doubt, while those under the Dunning-Kruger effect have too little.

The cases may seem extreme, and I know that it’s tempting for many of us to think that neither can apply to us — or at least, only the more humble option, Neurotic Imposture can — but the problem of unrecognized ignorance as well as feelings of being an impostor can afflict us all in varying degrees.

Dunning goes on to explain how we are all engines running on misbelief because of the way our brains are designed and how we deal with the wealth of information around us. We tend to make assumptions and interpret information subjectively and, often, erroneously. His studies suggest that we are tenacious and consistent in sticking with these false assumptions, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

But what is interesting in his research is that those who are wrong consistently feel just as (and sometimes even more) sure of themselves as those who are right, and rarely ever change their minds. The crux of the problem lies not in the fact that we are all imperfect and make mistakes — because that is okay — but in the fact that we rarely realize that we are wrong.

One thing I’ve noticed though with the way we understand ignorance is that we confuse it for a lack of knowledge and, in turn, see education as a way of addressing ignorance. Dunning explains that while education can not impart perfect knowledge and understanding, it tends to make us feel confident that it can.

We think of education as a process of accumulating knowledge, coming from a state of ignorance; that we are unknowledgeable before getting an education and the piece of paper that proves it — when it should be the other way around. We should be acquiring knowledge to better understand just how much we don’t know yet.

At the same time, the way we’ve set up our classrooms puts so much prime on being confident in our being right that we forget that a healthy dose of self-doubt is crucial in the continued pursuit of growth.

On the other end of the spectrum, those who suffer from Neurotic Imposture consistently interpret information about their own abilities as a product of their accidental fraud. They would attribute their successes to luck, contacts, charm, and what they perceive to be false appearances to others whom they think are just as good or even better than they are. In this way, they live in constant fear of being exposed as a charlatan, and view their successes as a burden. They aren’t at all confident in their abilities but they are the most confident in their belief that they lack those very abilities.

I suppose the main takeaway from all of this is that we are victims of our own minds or, more accurately, its limitations. The way we perceive the world and ourselves is an active process because we interpret the information based on our past experiences or prior biases.

In this way, each of us has our own version of reality that differs slightly from the next person. While it is difficult to remove the lenses of our own bias, we have to find a way to work around them towards a more objective view of the truth, especially in terms of our own ignorance and abilities. And even if it rarely ever feels good to be proven wrong — embarrassing at best but dreadful at worst — we owe it to ourselves to understand when we are wrong, because that is how we start learning how to be right.

So I suppose this is where my friend’s intellectual humility comes in, at a time when nearly everyone can have access to facts and information, in the age of Google and Wiki. We have to develop a taste for ignorance in a way that drives us to learn more and be more, and be aware of the limits of our own knowledge. We have to be sensitive to our own tendency to adhere to our own biases and the logical foundations, or lack thereof, of our beliefs about the world and about ourselves, lest we remain forever, as Dunning calls it, confident idiots.

Marinel Mamac - Pulp diction

Marinel Mamac

By Marinel Mamac

12 replies on “On being wrong”


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