Could you be stupid but just don't know it?

Barry Shannon

BERTRAND Russell once said: “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision”

So, here's a question– have you ever heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect? No? Well have you ever found yourself listening to someone pompously holding court and spouting complete ill-informed nonsense?

You probably wondered how someone so disengaged from reality and removed from the actual facts of the matter had the brass neck to present themselves with such confidence and overwhelming self-belief, even when it was clear to the dogs in the street they were talking rubbish. Chances are, that's the Dunning-Kruger effect in action.

Here's a little story to illustrate the point. In 1995 McArthur Wheeler robbed two banks. He didn't use a mask and was easily caught and identified. When questioned, he said he thought he would fool the surveillance cameras because he had rubbed lemon juice on his face. He knew lemon juice could be used as a type of invisible ink and so he believed it could also be used to hide his features. He knew a little and extrapolated, thinking he was clever. The thing is, he wasn't smart enough to know any different.

D-K, inspired by this story, identified this as a form of cognitive bias, highlighted in their study called ‘Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments'.

They discovered that those with low intelligence often fail to realise this and also fail to recognise intelligence in others. Because of this they feel like their opinion is untouchable. There can be no alternatives. They are not smart enough to realise that there may be many alternative viewpoints, theories, ideas, potentials and outcomes than just what they themselves have knowledge of.

So how does this affect the office? Well for one you need to be careful of people who nominate themselves for everything going, despite a lack of relevant experience or skill. The type of person who thinks that because they manage a local football team they can now run Real Madrid. Enthusiasm and ambition are great, but only if married to self-awareness and a recognition that there is room to learn and grow.

Consider too the area of performance management. How do you successfully discuss poor performance with someone who doesn't understand why, how or even if they are performing poorly? How do you convince someone with an illusionary sense of superiority that they are not doing well?

What about interview panels? If the interviewer is someone who can't understand or appreciate people talking on a higher intellectual plane, then do those candidates get rejected out of hand simply because they are dismissed as talking nonsense?

The key to trying to solve these problems lies in a mixture of approaches. Providing more regular feedback can help. Don't leave it too late for them to be told they are not performing and use clear, measurable goals to illustrate what you are saying.

When they put forward their own (set in stone) theories, challenge them to provide actual metrics or objective evidence to back them up.

And finally, keep expanding and building their knowledge bank. Give them plenty of training and development. The more they learn, the more they begin to realise what they don't know.

As Confucius once said: “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance.”

:: Barry Shannon ( is HR director at Cayan in Belfast.


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