Maps at malls and other places typically show a dot noting “you are here.” It helps us get a frame of reference. We must know where we are to understand how to plan to get from here to there. When we’re using the maps feature on our phones or in our cars, it’s the same. We see a red dot that helps us be aware of where we are. The starting point of all of our journeys is understanding where we are.
A weekly Minnesota radio show that aired many years ago ended with the broadcaster, Garrison Keillor, referencing a fictional Lake Wobegon, where all the men are strong, the women beautiful, and the children all well behaved and talented. It was a funny sound off that left listeners smiling at the implausibility of everyone being amazing. Psychologists began recognizing a similar trend in self-rating studies where subjects tended to over estimate their capability. This became known, casually, as the Lake Wobegon Effect or the Dunning-Kruger Effect after the two researchers that have studied it extensively. An early study found that more than 90% of us rate our driving ability at above average. This effect even affects experts. A survey of professors done at the University of Nebraska found, too, that over 90% rated themselves at above average. The Dunning-Kruger effect is graphed where the x axis represents our skill and the y axis represents our confidence. The graph line shows as an inverted U. As beginners we recognize we have limited skill and our confidence is limited as a result. Slowly, our abilities may modestly progress and our confidence follows our sprouting competence. Those that are aware and continue to invest in the activity will expand their expertise. However, as they approach expert status they realize the depth of their activity. No matter how good they are, the world of what they have yet to explore looms larger. Their confidence is kept in check and even reduces from their earlier progress. This humility allows them to keep working at improving. However, many never keep this awareness. Some see themselves as pretty good and their confidence rises beyond their skills. They begin to think they are better than they really are.
The Dunning-Kruger effect is considered a cognitive bias that is also known as the Illusion of Superiority or the Better Than Average Effect. Ulrich Boser puts it in Learn Better, “We think we know a lot more than we do, and just about everyone thinks that they’re smarter, prettier, and more skilled than average.” We can think we are better at something than we really are because of how little we know. The disconnect between our confidence and competence follows from our absence of understanding of the subject. This bias blurs our vision and we no longer accurately see where we are on our maps.
Several years ago there was a TV ad for a game called Boom Beach that was a big hit on smartphones. One of these https://youtu.be/EfyDH23XVJk ads represents a great example of a guy exhibiting the Dunning-Kruger effect. The solider stands on the beach and is directed to take out an enemy position. The animated, buff soldier proceeds to hurl one grenade after the other while wildly missing each time. He then throws a grenade so badly it hits a rock outcropping above the target. Somehow the rock cropping crumbles and crushes the enemy. The soldier pauses, then confidently claims, “Nailed it!” As funny as it is to watch, our soldier is showing us a complete disconnect between his self-assessment of his capabilities and reality. He’s taking complete credit for a fluke.
Over estimating our capabilities reflects an absence of awareness. Dunning and Kruger’s original paper showcasing this syndrome included in its title, “Unskilled and Unaware” which accurately captures the concept. Though only formally studied in the last 25 years, it’s been around as long as we have been. Richard Whately observed, over 150 years ago, “He who is not aware of his ignorance will only be misled by his knowledge.” The downsides of this self-deception are several. It absolutely caps our ability to learn. When we think we’re all that and a bag of chips we aren’t worried about working harder or trying to improve. We feel we have things figured out. Our growth and learning is capped by our perspective. Unfortunately, that’s the best part. We can become downright dangerous to ourselves and others and making reckless choices when our cognition is clouded with illusory superiority.
One example we may be able to relate to where this effect has been shown to be prevalent relates to estimations of driving skills. Researchers can take a group and ask them to rate their own skills. The average ratings are well above what math would define as average. Many of us think we’re better at the activity than we really are. Inaccurate assessments of skills show not just in driving but in other areas. Additional areas that have shown individuals rating themselves such that a group would present statistically impossible results include various assessments of student academic abilities, our ability to get along with others, and leadership abilities. This gap can affect us at work. Like many things, it’s easier to see in others, yet difficult to recognize in ourselves.
An interesting aspect of this bias is that there’s an inverse relationship between actual competence and self-assessment of the rating. Those who demonstrate clear competence tend to self-assess themselves lower than their skill set. They express humility. This also leaves them open to feedback which fuels further improvements. This can be contrasted with those having high views of their skill set which are at odds with their objective abilities. We’ve seen this on shows like American Idol. A classic part of the early episodes on each season of this show involves the mass crowd auditions. We see some who make the audition that have absolutely no singing skill whatsoever. They are so bad that they make our shower crooning sound like it is worthy of a Grammy. When the judges confront them with a realistic assessment of their singing, these people are either shocked at the assessment or disregard it completely criticizing the judge’s inability to “recognize talent.” Their self-assessment of their prowess prevents them from seeing reality and guarantees that their skill development stagnate.
It seems that this tendency to overrate our ability in a given area may act as a limiter or obstacle to us making further progress in that area. If we think we are doing a great job and have solid skills, we are likely less motivated to seek out additional information or ways to improve. A study undertaken involving therapists compared individual self-assessments of performance by therapists against the assessment of their peers and patients. The results reflected that therapists that were considered experts by their peers and patients had solid self-awareness of their abilities. They didn’t overestimate their skills. If anything, they erred to under-evaluating themselves. However, the therapists that rated themselves highest on self-assessments were consistently seen by their peers and patients as poor performers. These low performers had a self-understanding that was completely cut off from the real world.
As a child, I lived in Texas. Cockroaches were a common nuisance that would run wild in our garage. Many mornings we would enter the garage from the house, turn on the light, just to watch dozens of cockroaches sprint for the sidelines seeking to scurry away from the light. Their actions reminded me of what my kids used to do when I would wake them for school by turning the lights on in their room on dark mornings. They would immediately stop, drop, and roll under their covers hiding from the harsh light. Our personal reaction to the truth is all too often similar to that of our cockroaches and children. We don’t want anything to do with it. Denial is our default. Unfortunately, though it may provide some comfort for our ego, denial doesn’t get us anywhere. We’re destined to deteriorate when we default to denial as a defense. Socrates observed this over 2,400 years ago writing, “The worst of all deceptions is self-deception.” The late renown physicist, Richard Feynman, updated Socrates in more recent times offering, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Some of us may be like our cockroaches when it comes to controlling our weight. In Mindless Eating, Brian Wansink notes that much of our struggles with nutrition is tied to wilful ignorance about what we actually consume. He notes that we’re blissfully unaware and consume much more than we think. Wansink writes, “The opposite of clarity is murkiness. And murkiness’s close cousin is mindlessness—the state of being unaware.” Worse yet, we may bury our scales deep in our closets further fueling our unawareness and ensuring the quarter pounders pile up into full pounds around our mid-sections. A few years ago we took a tourist helicopter flight as a family in Kauai. As we booked our flight via the phone we had to provide weights for each person travelling. When we got to the heliport, we each had to step on a scale. They kept the result out of our view and the weight was presented on the other side of the counter. We asked them why they did this and they said they became tired of the people irritably arguing with the disconnect between what the scale showed and what they had presented as their weight when booking. Many of us either don’t know where we are or don’t want to know.
Awareness is recognizing even when others are telling you things are fine and that you’re perfect just the way you are, that there’s things you can still do to improve. What facts about our business are we happily ignoring? Are there industry benchmarks available which we intentionally discount or ignore? Are we hiding information like many of us hide our scales in order to remain comfortable in our self-delusion? In what areas of our business do we have more confidence than our results reflect? As James Baldwin has noted, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Awareness is the door that opens to potential change. To accelerate awareness and defeat denial, we should ask “Does it help?” We should ask recognizing that the answer to does it help doesn’t mean it won’t hurt. We’re likely to be uncomfortable with the answers, but if improvement is what we’re after, discomfort is to become our friend. Dan Sullivan, principal at Strategic Coach, affirms that “All progress starts with telling the truth.” Erika Anderson author of Leading So People Will Follow notes that we can’t determine a direction until we know where we are writing, “Once you feel that you’re clear about the current reality of your business or your department, you can build a vision for the future.”
Start with awareness. We need to know where we are before we can realistically make progress towards where we want to go. Henry David Thoreau considered awareness the key to living an intentional life writing, “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.” Many years before Thoreau, Buddha simply offered, “Be Aware.” Developing awareness implies intention. We need to actively check in with ourselves to see if what we’re doing throughout our days is being done with awareness. We can develop awareness by scheduling time to make an appointment with ourselves in order to consider a few questions. Tiffany Shlain in 24/6 offers the questions, “Is what I’m about to do a reflection of who I am? And who I want to be?” Brendon Burchard in The Motivation Manifesto suggests, “Several times throughout the day, we can ask ourselves, ‘If I stopped and hovered above my life, what do I see myself doing, and why do I think I am doing that? Why am I feeling what I am feeling right now? What result will happen from my current actions and intentions?” Cherie Carter-Scott writes in her book If Life is a Game, These Are the Rules, “Tools like meditation, journal writing, personal coaching, and therapy help many learn awareness. For others, simply posting meaningful reminders on the bathroom mirror works.”
Whatever our approach, checking in on our thoughts will help us think better thoughts which will fuel better actions. With improved actions our results will trend in a direction we want to go. Awareness is accelerated by pursuing suggestions like these. Cue your questions by tying them to a reminder/alarm on your phone. Try to check in 4-5 times a day for a week. When your alarm goes, ask yourself your questions. Ideally, write down your thoughts or record them on a voice memo. Then continue after reviewing and reflecting on your results. Are you spending more time on the things that matter to you as a result of this exercise? Is your presence in an activity more focused?
Tim Grover has worked with elites in sport and business. His first client was Michael Jordan and he also worked with Kobe Bryant during his NBA career. In Grover’s book Winning: The Unforgiving Race to Greatness, he puts things bluntly writing, “Winning has its own language, and it doesn’t speak bullshit.” You can’t improve yourself or your business by lying to yourself. The truth hurts, but it’s the only thing that works. We’ve got to know with absolute honesty where we are on the map before we can plan our trip. The first step to fixing any problem is admitting we have a problem. There is a reason a first step in many recovery programs is acceptance. Acceptance is admitting one has a problem. It implies awareness. We can’t or won’t fix that which we don’t realize is broken. Grover points out, “We have so many ways of lying to ourselves. The score was closer than it looked. The game was closer than the score. The team isn’t as bad as its record. We saw some good things. We’re headed in the right direction. This is our year. No. The score is the score. The number on the balance sheet is the number. Your grade is your grade. The scale is accurate.” As a trainer, Grover only works with those that show up with this awareness. Grover writes, “There is no greater superpower than the ability to say “This is who I am.” Most people push that away, because they don’t want to be judged. Winners don’t care. They judge themselves, and live with the verdict.” Do you know where you are? Do you know where your business is?