Tough road to understanding our own bias

Are you a victim of the Dunning-Kruger Effect? Did you engage in confirmation bias during this political season?

If you do not know what these terms mean, or if you found yourself in either of the above human tendencies, there is a potential cure for both. Read on.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect was a theory developed in 1999 by Cornell University psychology professors Dr. David Dunning and Dr. Justin Kruger. They defined this effect the following way: “a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability to recognize their (own) ineptitude.”

Put in layman’s terms, it means that people who are not skilled at something believe they are more skilled than they really are. In contrast, people who are highly skilled at some endeavor tend to underestimate their abilities and to see themselves as less capable than they really are.

The paradox of learning anything is to realize how little one really knows about any subject. Those who have been educated deeply in any field – the sciences, history, psychology, theology, politics, metallurgy, or carpentry – know how much real knowledge and skill is required to excel at any of these endeavors.

The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates put it best when he stated, “I know that I know nothing.” Socrates was a highly intelligent philosopher whose ideas have endured for more than 2,400 years. He realized that human knowledge is limited. We all live with uncertainty. Realizing that uncertainty is a sign of being deeply educated. It is a statement of humility.

Absolute certainty is a reflection of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Now, apply this information to the just completed election year. Were you absolutely certain you knew who the best presidential candidate was? Could you see the strengths and weaknesses of his or her opponent?

One good thing has come out of this messy and seeming never-ending campaign. The deep desire to win has stripped all the illusions away from two very flawed human beings. Because of the mudslinging, we should have been able to see both as they truly are. Our competitive election process leaves no doubt about a candidate’s personality and character and level of integrity.

Unfortunately, there is another human tendency that blinds us to the Dunning-Kruger Effect. It is called confirmation bias. Kendra Cherry defines it in a June 22, 2016, “Very Well” article entitled, “What is Confirmation Bias? Examples and Observations.”

Her definition is: “a type of cognitive (mental) bias that involves favoring information that confirms previously existing beliefs or biases.” In other words, we tend to gravitate toward news and sources that reaffirm what we already believe.

If a voter believed that Donald Trump was the best candidate, he/she would ignore information that pointed out his flaws. If, by happenstance or design, very sordid information arose, as in the case of Trump’s “locker room” comments, a supporter would find ways to justify or excuse their candidate’s behavior or say it did not matter because he/she trusts him.

If, on the other hand, you were a Clinton supporter, you had reasons to ignore and/or justify her secretiveness and her use of her office as secretary of state to increase funding for the Clinton Foundation. Or, your response might be, “yeah, but Trump is much, much worse!” That is my bias.

The cure for the Dunning-Kruger Effect is humility – to know that you do not know. The antidote for confirmation bias is to recognize the human tendency to seek information that supports your opinion and, instead, to seek facts that challenge your beliefs.

Are any of these solutions easy? In no way! They require a deep degree of self-understanding and a willingness to at least try to understand the opposing view. Stephen Covey said it best: “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.” Only when we can listen to another’s views can we really begin to approach emotional maturity and to heal ourselves of the Dunning-Kruger Effect and confirmation bias.