From the editor
THE DUNNING-KRUGER EFFECT
Words & Image: James McCormack
Image caption: A year or two back—OK, two decades ago—in the Japan Alps
(This story originally featured in Wild #188, Winter 2023)
Back in the 1990s, two psychology professors at Cornell University in the US gave a cohort of undergrad students a logic test. Their aim was to analyse whether intelligence, or lack thereof, influenced self-awareness. And what they—one being David Dunning and the other being Justin Kruger—discovered was that indeed there is a correlation. Well, a negative correlation anyway. In what has since become known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, the pair summed up their findings like this: “It is one of the essential features of incompetence that the person so inflicted is incapable of knowing that they are incompetent.” Or, as John Cleese eloquently put it, “If you are really, really stupid, then it’s impossible for you to know you are really, really stupid.”
Recently, however, there has been some pushback against the theory. In an article in The Conversation titled ‘Debunking the Dunning-Kruger effect’, Eric Gaze, a mathematics lecturer, argued that Dunning’s and Kruger’s analysis was misleading. “The reality,” says Gaze, “is that people have an innate ability to gauge their competence and knowledge.”Clearly, Eric Gaze has not spent much time outdoors. Nor has he met me. At the least, the younger me—ahh, OK, perhaps sometimes still the older me, too—because I would have been Exhibit A for the Dunning-Kruger effect. Young me in the outdoors was chock full of incompetence masquerading as knowledge.
“All too often in the outdoors I had a confidence only the clueless can possess, and I charged into situations that, had I actually been competent, I would never have contemplated. “
It probably started when I was on my first overnight-bushwalking trip without an adult. I was twelve years old, but nonetheless the eldest of the six of us heading out. But I knew what I was doing, I was sure of it, and when it came time to cook our tins of spaghetti for dinner, I confidently assured the other kids (some were as young as eight) that the way to do so was simply to throw the tins on the fire.
“Shouldn’t we open the cans first?” one of them asked.“No, it’ll be fine,” I assured him. Then I added, “C’mon, I know about camping.” It wasn’t long until we had a canned spaghetti explosion, and—because we were too afraid of more explosions to approach the fire close enough to get the remaining tins out—the spaghetti bombs continued detonating. Pop! Bang! Blam!
A long series of equally regrettable incidents took place over the decades to come. All too often in the outdoors I had a confidence only the clueless can possess, and I charged into situations that, had I actually been competent, I would never have contemplated. Some of these situations were more serious than others. I paddled rivers in flood I never should have, got caught in avalanches, nearly drowned, fell off cliffs, broke bones.
More frequently, however, if things went wrong because of my ignorance, the results were merely uncomfortable, not dangerous. A couple of decades ago, midway through a 50-day hike across the Japan Alps, I saw a sign warning not to drink the water from a mountain hut. I’m sure it’s fine, I told myself as I gulped it down untreated; the virulent diarrhoea that ensued saw me lose 18kg over the remainder of the journey. I could almost have handled that, though; it was the weeks of sulphurous farts that really hurt. But in my youth, for the most part I simply got away with my incompetence, and trotted off none the wiser that I’d even been flirting with danger.
“Chances are you once walked in their shoes. So instead of offering only criticism, mentor them instead. And remember, be humble; shit happens even to experienced outdoors people.”
I suspect most people when they’re young do the same, especially if they’re young men; women tend to be waaaay smarter and far more sensible. But here’s the thing: I learnt from those mistakes. That’s how I gained experience.
The reasons I’m talking about this are threefold. Firstly, it’s to remind experienced outdoors folk that they shouldn’t look too judgementally on young—let’s be blunt—idiots. Chances are you once walked in their shoes. So instead of offering only criticism, mentor them instead. And remember, be humble; shit happens even to experienced outdoors people.
Secondly, use your judgement. Granted, this is hard when you’re clueless, incompetent, or simply inexperienced. But use what little judgement you have to consider where your cluelessness might take you. What are the consequences as a backcountry skier of not knowing about snowpack stability? Or as a canyoner to not having considered rescue options if there’s an injury? Or as a walker to heading off with minimal water and no ability to navigate? Or as a trad climber only being half sure of how to place gear? In many of these situations, the outcomes of inept bumbling will be benign, but not always. So think about situations where the stakes are high; if you don’t know what you are doing, back off.
Thirdly, though, in complete contradiction to my last point, I want to encourage people, both young and old, to sometimes just jump into an activity. Back yourself. Dive in. Convince yourself that you know enough about something, or have the ability—even when you don’t—to have a crack. Within reason, of course. Don’t become a statistic. As I said in the previous paragraph, use judgement. But also be aware that there are few quicker ways to learn and gain experience than simply by making mistakes; if you wait only until you have a complete understanding to attempt something, chances are you’ll never progress far, nor learn to gauge your abilities. Sometimes, the only way to escape the Dunning-Kruger effect is to, at least a little, channel the Dunning-Kruger effect.