Why Our Ignorance Makes Us Overestimate How Much We Know

Impostor syndrome has been covered extensively in recent years. Its inverse, known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, is at least as pervasive: our innate tendency to confidently claim expertise in topics we know very little about, sometimes to embarrassing (if not tragic) results. Writing for Pacific Standard, David Dunning, who led the first studies of this phenomenon, explores the ways in which our inflated sense of knowledge is a defining attribute of human nature.

The way we traditionally conceive of ignorance—as an absence of knowledge—leads us to think of education as its natural antidote. But education, even when done skillfully, can produce illusory confidence. Here’s a particularly frightful example: Driver’s education courses, particularly those aimed at handling emergency maneuvers, tend to increase, rather than decrease, accident rates. They do so because training people to handle, say, snow and ice leaves them with the lasting impression that they’re permanent experts on the subject. In fact, their skills usually erode rapidly after they leave the course. And so, months or even decades later, they have confidence but little leftover competence when their wheels begin to spin.

In cases like this, the most enlightened approach, as proposed by Swedish researcher Nils Petter Gregersen, may be to avoid teaching such skills at all. Instead of training drivers how to negotiate icy conditions, Gregersen suggests, perhaps classes should just convey their inherent danger—they should scare inexperienced students away from driving in winter conditions in the first place, and leave it at that.

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