The Dunning-Kruger Effect

In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt. ~Bertrand Russell

The world is governed more by appearances than realities, so that it is fully as necessary to seem to know something as to know it.
~Daniel Webster



Research on music practice shows that those less-skilled in the ways of practice (and music in general), are–of course–less able to identify incorrect sounds, mistakes, expressive aspects, difficult passages that need extra work, and other components of making their music better. Strategies for learning are also usually lacking in the practice habits of neophytes. Younger children–and let’s assume newbies of any age–practice differently than those with experience because of their un-developed awareness. No big surprises here, right? I mean, how can you be aware of that which is outside your awareness? It’s a riddle, the answer to which is one of the fundamental hurdles of effective practice. The first step is the awareness of one’s lack of awareness. Well, awareness and honest assessment. This last sentence is where things get tricksy. You might not be making a correct read on your skills. Enter David Dunning and Justin Kruger, psychologists from Cornell who, in 1999, wrote a paper titled, Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments, now known as the Dunning/Kruger Effect.

The Dunning/Kruger Effect is one of 19 Social Biases (go here for a visual guide to many others or here for a recent interview w/ Dunning), also known as superiority bias, the “Lake Woebegon” effect. We’ve all met someone like this, and may even be like this ourselves if we don’t pay attention. As far as I can tell, it works like this: people who are less able (let’s say a beginning musician), don’t have the skills to make a correct assessment of their ability and tend to overrate their expertise. They think they’re better than they are because they lack the awareness to know any better. In addition, they don’t yet have the competence to apply strategies for improvement they don’t think they need. Make sense? Maybe an example will help. I’ve seen this all the time with very young students who finally “get” a simple song and are elated, full of vim and vigor because they think they’re good. And in a sense, they are, they’re better than they once were, they’ve triumphed over something difficult. But they lack the range of experience to clearly understand that they have a loooong way to go. Watch the tryouts for American Idol and you’ll see LOTS of the Dunning Krueger Effect (DKE), some of it quite hilarious or heartbreaking, depending.

The weird thing is another side of the DKE:  those who are competent tend to underrate their expertise. The bashful expert, the sheepish performer, the self-deprecating. Chances are such folks wrongfully assume others have equal understanding and this bleeds them of confidence. They don’t really believe in their greater expertise perhaps also because of an awareness of how much there really is to know, and this also makes it difficult to build confidence. Sometimes the more you know, the less you understand.

“Thus, the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others” (Kruger, J. & Dunning, D., 1999, p. 1127).

The best thing is to give yourself honest assessments and seek them from others whose opinions you trust as well. Generally, I think we all would  progress more rapidly without feelings of superiority which blind us to our weaknesses. And we all have those, whether one is competent or otherwise. It’s wise and prudent to remain humble before a complex discipline like Music. There will always be someone better, always someone worse, always someone with more knowledge, always someone with less; we should vow to learn from the former and to teach the latter. And of course,  all of these facts are  entirely beside the point of making music.

Make a list: what things do you feel most confident about in your life? Not just music, but anything: stock analyst, saleswoman, carpenter, gamer, whatever. What are your weaknesses within that one thing you’re most confident about? Don’t think you have any? Hello, DK effect! Now do the same with music. What are your musical strengths? How about weaknesses? If you use this kind of exercise and answer thoughtfully, you’ve just given yourself a list of things to work through. Most best practice starts with a plan, a strategy of some sort, a goal. A list of weaknesses to address is a good first step.

Make another list. This might be more difficult. What things do you dabble in as a hobby but don’t give yourself much credit for? Something you think everyone and anyone knows plenty about. Could be music, swimming, stock analysis, or anything else. Chances are you know more than the average person about some passing interest. For me, it’s mushrooms. I guess I’d consider myself an amateur mycologist; I’m always picking mushrooms, trying to identify them, making spore prints. I dismiss my knowledge because I’m an amateur and know there are others out there with vast stores of knowledge that make my dabbling look pitiful. But on deeper reflection, I’d guess that most people probably couldn’t tell a morel from a false morel (short of eating the wrong one and dying) or a bolete mushroom from one with lamella. And just thinking this through helps me appreciate what I have learned a little. But I know I’ve got much more to learn. For a long time I’ve dreamed of a microscope so I can take the identification to the next level. Maybe after the dissertation….

Here’s a video of the excellent musicians from Kinshasa who happen to be polio victims, many of whom can’t walk or have some other disability. They’re known as  Staff Bella Bindi (meaning “look beyond appearances”).

Have fun and good luck with your practice.


Kruger, Justin; David Dunning (1999). “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77(6): 1121–34. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.77.6.1121. PMID 10626367.


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