Wednesday, 14 October 2015

TANDQ 07: Effect of Learning

In 2014-2015 I wrote an education column called "There Are No Dumb Questions" for the website "MuseHack". As that site has evolved, I have decided to republish those columns here (updating the index page as I go) every Wednesday. This seventh column originally appeared on Tuesday, September 30, 2014.

Why is this activity harder than I anticipated?

People are not good at self-assessment - with a possible caveat that I will get to later. Consider that other words can also be substituted for “activity” above, such as “job”, “hobby”, “decision” or maybe even “relationship”. And experiencing some difficulties may actually be a good sign. It relates to the following quote: “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” (Bertrand Russell). In other words, it relates to the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

David Dunning and Justin Kruger published their result in a paper, “Unskilled and Unaware of It”, back in 1999. The rational wiki offers an explanation, ultimately simplifying it down to “people are too stupid to realize they’re stupid”. Let me put it another way: it has to do with your focus. When you don’t know much about a subject or activity, you tend to perceive it via the limited understanding you already have. Which (in most cases) will make things seem simple enough. Conversely, as you learn more about the subject, your focus will shift from what you know towards the things you do not yet know. As a result, the same activity appears more complicated. Let me give you an example.

My quote above, attributed to Bertrand Russell, may be incorrect. If you clicked on the “rational wiki” link, you might have noticed that their quote, while preserving the spirit, is actually quite different. Elsewhere on the internet, I have also seen the quote end similarly, but begin with: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world …” Alternatively, sometimes the quote includes the words “fools and fanatics”. The quote has also been attributed to Charles Bukowski, but no authentic source for that has been found. Of course, Bob Talbert (a columnist) will also turn up in searches, as he once quoted Russell. Now, when I started this column, I could never have (correctly) predicted the amount of time I’d have to spend researching that one single quote. Because I didn’t even know there was a controversy! (Ultimately, I gave up, and wrote this paragraph. Feel free to educate me as to the real quote in the comments below.)

That said, not knowing things - that’s not the problem. The problem comes in believing that we DO know things, when in actuality we do not. Or, to be generous, perhaps they are things we once knew, but no longer know under present circumstances. Either way, couple this effect with the fact that any research you do may involve Confirmation Bias (covered in my column here), and we can end up with enough rope to hang ourselves. For instance, these articles from earlier in 2014: "The less Americans know about Ukraine’s location, the more they want U.S. to intervene" and "The less Canadians know about Fair Elections Act, the more they support it". But wait - there’s more.

Reverse the Polarity

As with most things, there is a flip side. Once your focus has shifted to the things you do not know about the subject, you will tend to downgrade the knowledge you have already obtained. If you look at the graph in the original Dunning-Kruger paper, which plotted “Perceived Ability” along with “Actual Test Score”, those people in the top quartile (and only the top quartile) actually scored in a higher percentile (ie- relative to everyone else) than they believed that they would. Put more simply, once you’re in the thick of things, you might know more than you think you do.

Some connect this reversed relationship to the “impostor syndrome”, a phenomenon whereby you believe you are a fraud despite a series of accomplishments. I think the connection there is tenuous - an expert with an inaccurate perception does not necessarily think they aren’t any good at all. (The truth is probably closer to the false-consensus effect.) To provide another personal example, I wonder if maybe I’ve been telling you things you already know... that doesn’t mean I think this column is useless. To that end, let’s conclude by applying the “Dunning-Kruger” effect to the effect itself.

It’s not actually saying anything about intelligence, or stupidity. Very smart people may fall victim, if they are in a situation of which they have little knowledge, experience or skill. It’s also relative, in that if you take the top 5% of experts, and put them all in a room, a bunch of them will end up in the bottom quartile - despite the fact that (by definition) they know more than 95% of people in their field. There is also something called “regression to the mean”, the tendency for ability to get better (or worse) relative to some overall average. Feel free to check out “What the Dunning-Kruger effect is and isn’t” for more about this (it also has the graph I mentioned earlier).

And now for that caveat I mentioned at the beginning. Dunning was interviewed earlier this year, in an article entitled “Why 40% of us think we’re in the top 5%” (see link below). In it, he discusses a test of emotional intelligence, which showed that it was the top performers who showed the most interest in improving. That is, if a student did well with a puzzle, they would return to it, but if they did poorly, they would not - except in Japan. There the pattern was flipped. So... to what extent might our perceptions be a product of Western culture? I don’t claim to have an answer to that.

In the end, perhaps it's true what they say: “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” (Alexander Pope) Maybe it was him. Oh, not this again!

For further viewing:

1. Measles, the Media, and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

2. The Dunning-Kruger Effect and the Climate Debate

3. Why 40% of us think we’re in the top 5%

Got an idea or a question for a future TANDQ column? Let me know in the comments, or through email!

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