The more you know, the more you know how little you know

The Dunning-Kruger effect has been floating around on social media for a while so I assume many are familiar with it. Knowing a little can make you think you know a lot because you don’t know how little you know. Novices can become over-confident.

CONSPIRACY THEORIES

This especially came to the forefront during the recent pandemic. Many conspiracy theorists thought they knew a lot about vaccines and epidemiology. (Topics that take decades of study to become proficient in.) While they, in reality, based their views on random pieces of information from dubious sources, internet echo chambers, generally bad data and bad logic, and a lack of familiarity with the field.

Many also seemed unaware that they were repeating predictable patterns from history. During pandemics, these types of conspiracy theories flourish, likely because people are scared and try to find a sense of certainty. (Often through blame and assigning the cause to a group of people rather than the systems or the unpredictability and randomness of nature, and/or by denying what’s happening.)

AWAKENING, HEALING, AND SPIRITUAL PRACTICES

This also applies to healing, awakening, and spiritual practices.

I often see people who have been into it for a few years presenting themselves as if they have certain knowledge, while they in reality are just scratching the surface and approaching it in a relatively immature way.

Of course, some get a lot in a relatively short period of time. (I was probably among them.)

And their knowledge may be more than sufficient to help others along the way. We often just need to be one or two steps ahead of someone for our guidance and input to be helpful, especially if we approach it with some groundedness and a sense of our limits.

AS WE GET MORE EXPERIENCE

There is also something that happens as we mature into it.

In a conventional sense, we may know quite a bit and perhaps more than most. And we also learn and discover how much we don’t know.

We may be among the ones who have the most experience with something. And at the same time, we realize that our own experience and knowledge is a drop in the ocean compared to how much there is to discover and learn.

We tend to realize that we don’t know anything for certain.

We tend to be more aware of our biases and how our evolutionary history, our biology and psychology, our place in time and culture, and more all strongly color our perception.

We tend to know, from experience, that our view may be turned upside down and inside out at any time.

We tend to realize there is no finishing line and that there is always further to go.

This helps us hold it all more lightly, and that is often a sign of maturity.

WHY THIS EFFECT?

The peak of “mount stupid” is often marked by a sense of certainty.

We start to feel a sense of mastery of something and we tell ourselves we know and that we are experts.

There may be several reasons for this.

We may not yet have enough experience in that particular area to realize how little we know.

We may not be good enough in any area to have learned that there is always more to learn and that we are always, in a sense, just scratching the surface. We may not have this experience to generalize from.

And we may be motivated by wanting to compensate for a sense of lack. If we have a sense of lack and feel we are not good enough, it’s tempting to jump on a little skill or knowledge and use it to feel better about ourselves, and then overdo it.

WHEN WE AVOID THIS PITFALL

As suggested above, we can avoid or reduce the DK effect in different ways.

As we get more experience, we know how little we know, we know we don’t know anything for certain, and we hold it all more lightly.

If we have expertise in one field, we tend to know how little we know and that there is always further to go. So we find some humility grounded in reality, and can generalize this to other areas of life. If this is how it is in the field I happen to know about, it’s probably the same in other fields.

We may have this more naturally with us. Perhaps because of our upbringing and what we see from others, from our own experiences and insights, or because we don’t have much of a sense of lack or don’t use the DK strategy to compensate for it. We may naturally hold it all more lightly with an inherent knowing that we cannot know for certain.

LEARNING ABOUT THESE DYNAMICS

Another way to prevent or reduce the DK effect in our own life is to learn about it.

We learn about the effect, examine some typical expressions of it, and look at some specific examples. And that makes it easier to recognize when it happens to us.

We can also use our common sense. There is always more to learn and further to go. We don’t know anything for certain. It makes sense to hold it all more lightly. And it makes sense to have some respect for those who have spent decades in full-time study of something and hear what they have to say and learn from them.

Also, if we don’t know much about something, and our view is different from professionals in the field, then maybe it’s most likely that we are off on a wild goose chase?

A REVERSE DUNNING-KRUGER

A kind of reverse Dunning-Kruger effect can also happen.

We can be painfully aware of how little we know, to the point of not sharing it with the world.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is often rooted in a sense of lack. People compensate for a sense of lack by pretending – to themselves and others – they know and understand more than they do.

And the reverse Dunning-Kruger effect is also rooted in a sense of lack. It just plays itself out differently. We tell ourselves that what we know is not much, or that what we know is not worth much because we are not worth much, so we don’t share it or make much use of it.

This is something that’s familiar to me. And it’s one reason why I am mostly just sharing these things on an anonymous blog that just a few people look at.

Illustration: From Wikimedia Commons

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