Let’s talk about the Dunning-Kruger effect.
🤔 Why you should care about it
“If you're incompetent, you can't know you're incompetent ... The skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.” - David Dunning, social psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.
Engineers with a “know-it-all” attitude —> some (often junior) engineers tend to overestimate their ability to complete a project and usually disagree with their manager’s assessment of their performance. One study of high-tech firms discovered that 32-42% of software engineers rated their skills as being in the top 5% of their companies 😅
Senior engineers being overly cautious about a project —> even though they have deep knowledge or expertise about a topic, senior engineers may feel overly wary about a project’s success because they’re anticipating hidden difficulties.
Managers who want to help engineers overcome the Dunning-Kruger effect should:
- Confront overconfident engineers to reality by comparing their knowledge or skills to their colleagues in activities like pair programming, mob programming, public code reviews or presenting in front of the team.
- Coach underconfident engineers to become more risk-taking, helping them realise why they have become so wary. It can be an opportunity to remind them that ignorance can sometimes be bliss: “they did not know it was impossible, so they did it” (probably Mark Twain).
💡 Key Concepts
Overconfidence effect —> the tendency to hold a misleading assessment of our knowledge or skills.
Illusory superiority —> also known as the better-than-average effect, is the tendency to think that our knowledge or skills are better than the average person.
Unknown unknowns —> the knowledge, skills or problems an individual cannot anticipate because they lack.
Imposter syndrome —> a psychological occurrence in which an individual doubt their skills, talents or successes, despite external evidence of their competence.
Optimism Bias —> the tendency to overestimate the likelihood of positive outcomes and underestimate the likelihood of negative outcomes (a necessary bias for entrepreneurs 😉).
“The Dunning-Kruger research is flawed; there isn’t tangible evidence that incompetent people underestimate their competence.” —> Studies have shown that there might be noise in Dunning and Kruger’s research, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t empirical evidence. Irrationally over and under-confident engineers do exist.
“The Dunning-Kruger effect does not take into account cultural differences” —> This is true to some extent. For example, some studies indicate that East Asians tend to underestimate their abilities to improve themselves and get along with others.
“Managers who believe in the Dunning-Kruger effect will systematically dismiss ideas from junior engineers because they supposedly have less knowledge.” —> Managers should, of course, make sure they’ve not biased themselves when interacting with team members. Knowledge and skills do not necessarily come with age anymore.
📚 Top books
Do you know what you know? - Michael J. Mauboussin --> a fun confidence calibration exercise.
📼 Why incompetent people think they’re amazing (5.07) - David Dunning --> a quick introduction to the Dunning-Kruger effect you can share with your team.
📝 Why can we not perceive our own abilities? - The Decision Lab --> a deep dive on the Dunning-Kruger effect, with examples, why it happens and how you can avoid it.
📝 Mount Stupid - James Stanier --> how to deal with the Dunning-Kruger effect (and the imposter syndrome) in engineering teams.
📝 What the Dunning-Kruger effect is and isn’t - Tal Yarkoni --> a comprehensive criticism of Dunning and Kruger’s research methodology (and why their data might be noise).