I think of this as knowing just enough about something to be dangerous. Basically, people – roughly two thirds of people – who lack training in a certain topic grossly overestimate their skill and aptitude by wrongly assuming that they hold mastery of it. They project confidence about it because they’re totally ignorant of the fact that they’re misguided.
Take note of the diagram that I’ve borrowed from Skepticblog which shows the convergence of estimation of scores and actual test scores as knowledge improves. Unless and until they actually gain some legitimate training in the area, people who fall into the Dunning Krueger trap also fail to accurately estimate the skill of others. There are tons of people like this in pseudoscience fields – the blind leading the blind. (Image can be seen here)
On the other hand, the people who actually possess reasonable mastery of a topic or skill tend to underestimate their aptitude. They also tend to take for granted that a particular field of study that comes easier to them comes just as easy to others. So they also tend to underestimate the skill and knowledge needed because they use themselves as a starting point of comparison. I have read that only children tend to be prone this aspect of the Dunning-Kreuger Effect. Apparently siblings provide a great service by stretching one’s ability to more easily comprehend different perspectives.
Dunning Kruger’s Flipside
I tend to fall into the flip side of this tendency (sometimes called the Imposter Syndrome) because of how I was parented. Any kind of ‘pride’ including healthy self-satisfaction was punished as the sin of conceit. I worked hard and still sometimes have to bolster myself to overcome this underestimation of self. It’s a terrible thing to do to a child, something I discussed at some length in how parents unknowingly prime a child to be easy prey for spiritual abuse.
I remember sitting with a group of nurses at lunch more than a quarter of a century ago, and one lashed out at me, claiming that I feigned ineptitude as a means of getting attention. She came from a “good enough” family and had no clue what I felt. My default assumption was always that I was the most inept person in the crowd. I was never permitted to truly lay hold of my abilities or to have the attitude that I was competent. I could trust competency that I demonstrated, but I never really trusted that it was ‘me.’ If I turned out to be successful at something, it was just habit or something that everyone else could do.
I sat there, feeling utterly shocked, partly because I’d never heard the angry coworker say anything complementary about me. (Well, it wasn’t directly complementary, but there was a modicum of respect buried under her frustration.) If I was successful at something, it had to be fluke, or I owed that success to someone else. Though it was confusing and painful, it became a watershed moment for me where I was able to recognize this tendency in myself through the eyes (or rather the accusatory feedback) of someone else.
It called clearly for me to change and grow, and none of that has been an easy process. I’m still working this out. I didn’t have the healthy encouragement that I needed when I was young, and I find that it is quite a difficult thing to learn as an adult. ‘Normal’ people from ‘good enough’ homes take so much of what seems like self-awareness and self-knowledge for granted. I not only have to figure out who I am, where I am, and how I fit with others, but I also have to overcome the old baggage of the negative, disturbing messages of the past – my default path of least resistance.
Like other biases, I seem to attach a moral meaning to it all and risk thinking more highly of myself than I should. Keep in mind that for me, because of all of this baggage, certain admonishments in Scripture were quite skewed. The English Standard Version of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Church in Philippi translates a statement as “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”
Doesn’t that somehow automatically make others more significant than me – especially in terms of needs? This does attach a definitive moral weight to ascribing more significance to self than is warranted, but I still struggle to figure out the difference between healthy ambition that flows from a strong sense of self-worth and selfish, sinful ambition which demands the laud of others. I was raised without any awareness or permission to have healthy self-worth. How can I begin to interpret this moral imperative in a healthy way without a healthy footing as a starting place?
In the Leader
Leaders in high demand groups sometimes know very much about theology, but sometimes, they don’t. Many incompetent religious leaders survive on their charm and charisma, by playing politics, parroting others, and/or by feigning empathy (which they lack). Their forte shines in their people skills, not in their ability to exemplify the values of their faith. Then there are the leaders who are true believers who are really good guys until it comes to certain matters. Then they pull the authority card, and the good guy melts away. The Sacred Science which governs group dynamics ensures the illusion that the leader is a master of knowledge. Many groups also enforce the idea that if skilled in one area, the leader must have special insight and superior skills in all areas. Those who fail to observe this tradition suffer a variety of direct and indirect types of punishment by the leaders and by other members.
Like the cult leader’s Illusion of Asymmetric Insight into the lives of others becomes an institutionalized part of an unhealthy religious system, the Dunning-Krueger Effect can come into play. I’m continually amazed at how automatically this seems to happen in a high demand group with a charismatic leader. Even if that leader is incompetent, no one may speak of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Instead of saying nothing, the system demands that members encourage whatever the leader does – whether it’s good or not. Perhaps I think this way because of my own experiences, but I wonder if high demand relationships require that the subordinate parties adopt their version of the Imposter Syndrome? Perhaps it become akin to the patterns that Patrick Carnes notes in dysfunctional relationships?
As the Leader’s Weapon
A few times in my life, I have had the intensely painful experience of confrontations with a few people who have been my authorities of one variety or another. They all tend towards self-serving biases that cast them as somewhat superior or very superior to others, all in their own, unique ways. Two of those people were more blue collar vocational folks, one I think of as a quasi-professional (college education in theology), and one was an academic type professional with an advanced degree. There was a definitive power motive in play, and the goal was the annihilation of my confidence. They meant to shame me into shutting up and jumping back into line as a subordinate without an opinion of worth. Two of them were leaders in my spiritually abusive church.
Three of these people really caught me off guard because I thought of all but the academic as as very empathic, but I suppose that everyone has their limits. Relationships among imperfect people become complicated. People will sometimes also resort to out-of-character behavior when they feel threatened, and I didn’t think that they were capable of or ever interested in ever hurting anyone that deeply. Basically, when faced with something about me that they didn’t want to accept or couldn’t respect, they chose to protect their bias at my expense. I was accused of suffering from the Dunning-Krueger Effect, or what I think of as “too big for my britches.”
Having worked through the uphill battle of a lifetime to embrace who I am (sometimes quite capbable) and take pleasure in accomplishment (which differs from sinful pride), I don’t have adequate words to express how much pain it creates for me when I’m accused of being haughty or puffed up about something specific. On two occasions, I answered questions that the people I spoke with didn’t know that I knew and felt shame that I’d happily offered an answer to the question. (I well could have pointed to sources in reference books that would have backed me up and could contact professionals that could verify my interpretation.) The other two occasions involved my offer to do work that I’d done quite successfully in the past. How hard it is for me to listen to someone tell me that I can’t possibly have done a particular thing or couldn’t possibly have been trained in a particular area when I know that I have. And I don’t understand the posturing and the angry or glib response of those who discount me.
I think with three of the people that come to my mind now, I believe that if they really understood how painful their response was for me, given my history, they would not have said what they said to me. And the other person? It troubles me deeply because I don’t believe that they even care, one way or the other. Used as a weapon against me that renders me powerless and makes any attempt to plead my own case look like subterfuge, the accusation of being the opposite of who I know that I am hurts terribly. The statements weren’t made to help me see through my own bias. They were made to hurt me and bolster someone else at my own expense. I became insignificant, helpless, and forever fundamentally flawed.
Two of my religious leaders have done this to me quite poignantly. It happened quite a bit on a low level, too, just among other members of my church. We all had to praise the new clothes of the emperor. We paid the price if we failed in that duty. For someone who grew up with a collapsed sense of self, it seems to me that encountering a leader who tends towards this kind of bias results in terrible pain. It goes back to the moral issue for me — that I have disregarded others and used them in the process of trying to pretend that I’m more than I am. To me, that’s one of the very worst things that a person could do to another precious soul, especially if they are already so wounded. I’ve been there and know how painful it is. How ironic that a person in pain can turn their own bias around to make it their weapon. For me, it isn’t just a bias or a blind spot or a human failing. It’s an act of harm. That is something that I never want to ever do to another. (And that is a world away from healthy conflict, even if the negotiations are heated and uncomfortable. One can disagree without deep insults about a person’s being.)
And if anyone is interested, my relationships with all of the people I allude to above did not last. They couldn’t. I became healthy enough to end them.
Cindy is a member of the Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network.
Cynthia Mullen Kunsman is a nurse (BSN), naturopath (ND) and seminary graduate (MMin) with a wide variety of training and over 20 years of clinical experience. She has used her training in Complementary and Alternative Medicine as a lecturer and liaison to professional scientific and medical groups, in both academic and traditional clinical healthcare settings. She also completed additional studies in the field of thought reform, hypnotherapy for pain management, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that is often associated with cultic group involvement. Her nursing experience ranges from intensive care, the training of critical care nurses, hospice care, case management and quality management, though she currently limits her practice to forensic medical record review and evaluation. Most of her current professional efforts concern the study of manipulative and coercive evangelical Christian groups and the recovery process from both thought reform and PTSD.
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