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The Dunning-Kruger Effect And Why It’s More Important Than Ever To Make Up Your Own Mind

“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” — Bertrand Russell

Any observation of 21st century culture can’t help but give one the impression that there are a lot of incompetent people in the world doing stupid and often dangerous things. It’s hard to tell if this is some kind of epidemic, man as a species is evolving towards more sawing_tree_limb_man_stupidity, or if instant access of modern mass communications puts a spotlight on isolated instances of stupidity and broadcasts them around the world. Humans, undoubtedly, are the most complicated and bizarre animal that inhabits planet Earth. There is some scientific research that has tried to solve this puzzle. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect takes its name from two Cornell University researchers, David Dunning and Justin Kruger, social psychologists who have the interesting job of studying the puzzling question of why people do the things that they do. They determined that some people have a cognitive bias whereby they fail to adequately assess their level of incompetence at performing a task, erroneously considering themselves to be far more competent than they are and, in some cases, more competent than anyone else. They have a lack of self-awareness, depriving them of the ability to critically analyze their performance. As a result, they may significantly overestimate their own abilities. In simple terms, they are too stupid to know that they are stupid. The Dunning-Kruger Effect is one of the more common cognitive biases. There is a corollary to this effect which is called the Imposter Syndrome, where competent people underestimate their abilities but, unfortunately, Imposter Syndrome is far less common.

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”—William Shakespeare

Dunning and Kruger postulated this theory after a series of experiments started at Cornell in 1969. They tested students in a number of areas such as humor, grammar, and logic and compared the actual results of the tests with student estimates of how well they did. Those who scored well on the test consistently underestimated their performance, while those who scored the lowest “grossly overestimated” their scores. Dunning and Kruger found a correlation between the lowest scoring students and the degree to which they overestimated their ability. Dunning and Kruger explained it this way:

“This overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.”

While many view the Dunning-Kruger Effect as being somewhat tongue-in-cheek humor, bungled-personal-flight-attempt-1this phenomenon has been something that has fascinated great thinkers throughout the ages. Socrates, Shakespeare, Charles Darwin, and Bertrand Russell all have notable quotes that undoubtedly refer to the Dunning-Kruger Effect. The work of Dunning and Kruger is nothing new, this cognitive bias has existed throughout time. In previous eras of human history it would have been passed off harmlessly as the behavior of a village idiot, an eccentric old woman, or some nondescript character that society could avoid. In the 21st century, it might be more insidious.

Instant access of information has made people less likely, rather than more likely, to do their own research when it comes to political, economic, and social decision-making. Many are influenced by celebrities such as actresses, actors, athletes, and comedians when casting a vote or taking a stand on topics that impact contemporary society. But here’s a sobering thought: What if some of these celebrity sages are suffering from the Dunning-Kruger Effect?

“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge”—Isaac Asimov

2016 is an election year in the United States. We also live in a time when accurate donald-trump-hillary-clintoninformation is accumulating exponentially. There’s no reason that anyone needs to trust someone else’s opinion on issues of social and political importance. Before you surrender your opinion to the bias of someone else, do your own research and make a conscious effort before you decide on which village idiot to support.


P. S. If you found this article helpful, you may benefit from some personalized mindbody coaching. Contact me at http://mindbodycoach.org/contact-us/ if interested in online mindbody coaching. Please check out my Products page through the link at the top of this post.. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and social media. Email me with questions at john@mindbodycoach.org

“Don’t Look Down!”

“Don’t look down!”
If you’ve been involved in athletics in any sport at almost any level you’ve probably been told this. It is a kinesthetic principle that where we look tends to be where we go. “Keep your head tight ropeup!” is a reminder to maintain balance, stay focused, and to keep from keeling over. As a former athlete and coach, I’ve heard and said this thousands of times and witnessed what happens when one looks down. As a psychotherapist, counselor, and coach over the last 20 years I’ve seen hundreds of instances where the same advice can be applied to life challenges that my clients face.

What we focus on tends to be where we end up. The things that we most fear is likely to happen because we attend to it. When the fear becomes real in our minds it soon becomes real in actuality. It certainly happens much quicker in athletic events, but it is inevitable in real life, even if it doesn’t happen as quickly.

There’s a great story that I heard a number of years ago that I have repeated to clients countless times since. I recently looked up this story on the Internet and couldn’t find it. The story is, however, such a powerful illustration of  focus that I will continue to tell it even if I find that it is false. The story is something that New York Giants football coach Bill Parcells told his team prior to their first Super Bowl victory in 1987. If you’re not familiar with him, Parcells is a Hall of Fame coach and one of the great motivators in the game’s history. On the first day of practice Super Bowl week, Parcells brought his team to the middle of the practice field, had them all take a knee, and told them how important it was for them to stay focused that week. He told them that the best team doesn’t always win, but the most focused team parcellsusually does. He then had his assistant coaches bring out a balance beam and place it in the middle of the field. The balance beam was the kind used in women’s gymnastics, approximately 5 inches wide. The beam was set at its lowest level, a foot and a half off the ground. He then had the entire team walk across the beam in their stocking feet. They then lined up again and walked back the other way. The beam was removed from the field, and Parcells barked “Alright everybody take a knee!” He then launched into a lecture that is the take-home point of this story. “All of you had no problem with that. But what would happen if I raise that beam as high as possible? What would happen if I were to raise that beam and placed it between two buildings in downtown New York?… You know what would happen, you’d probably all fall. And you know why…? BECAUSE YOU LOOKED DOWN! YOU LOST FOCUS AND STOPPED LOOKING AT WHERE YOU ARE GOING!”

Not much more was said that day about focus. This experiential learning event made an impression on his players. They did remain focused and defeated the Denver Broncos 39 – 20 the following weekend in Super Bowl XXI. As I said before, I’m not sure even if the story is true as it is something that I remember hearing years ago. When I tell a client this story it never fails to make an impression. Their eyes usually glaze over a bit as they ponder the story, their eyes clear, usually they nod and say “Yeah, yeah…” Stories like this often become powerful vehicles of change for clients.

shot putSports Psychology has a lot of carryovers for Counseling Psychology. Perhaps no athletic principle is more applicable than “Don’t look down” and “keep your head up.” Think about this metaphor when struggling with motivation and staying on task with goals you have set for yourself.


“See what you hit, hit what you see.”-A Lot of Anonymous Coaches


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Creatures Of Habit

Most of us believe that we are in control of our lives and what we do. We believe that we are in possession of free will, and we are constantly making choices as we move throughout our day. habit signThis control that we exercise makes us fully functioning human beings. This control, however, is one of life’s biggest illusions.

Author Charles Duhigg, author of “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business,” estimates that as much as 45% of all daily behaviors are merely habits. Most behaviors are parts of routines that are mindlessly performed as we go through life. Despite what we think, we are literally creatures of habit. Most habits are not damaging and serve a positive function. Others, however, can become destructive, and ingrained, and in some cases even life threatening.

Duhigg’s research was done in laboratories at the Brain and Cognitive Sciences department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They studied the brain and how it functioned before, during, and after habit formation. Our brains instill habits through a process that Duhigg calls The Habit Loop. We respond to something in our environment, a cue, that we respond to or have an emotional response to. It is followed by a routine, or a set of behaviors that occur as a result of that cue. For this behavior we receive a reward.


For example, a cigarette smoker has a habit of smoking while talking on the phone. The phone call is the cue and the physical response, the cigarette, is the reward. Between cue and reward there are a set of behaviors such as opening the pack, taking out the cigarette, lighting the match and so on. Initially the routine takes some thought and planning. Over time the brain smokershuts down, showing less neurological activity during the routine phase of this Habit Loop. The brain literally goes on automatic pilot during the routine and a habit is formed. If the smoker does not follow the routine during a phone call, craving is experienced, and the smoker feels compelled to smoke. Craving, Duhigg explains, is the hijacking of the brain’s ability to make rational choices. To protect itself from craving the brain automatically follows the routine in pursuit of the reward.

There is a biological reason for habit formation. Going on automatic pilot allows the brain to function without becoming confused and overwhelmed. Most of our daily habits are innocuous, and in most cases necessary. Think about how easily you do things like rush your teeth, tie your shoes, drive a car, opened the door, and literally thousands of things that you do efficiently on a daily basis. All of these could be defined as habits. It is when the habits become destructive and threatening to health and well-being that they need to be changed.

Interestingly enough, Duhigg’s theory implies that once a habit is learned it can never truly be extinguished. This explains why a smoker, addict, or alcoholic can experience craving years after their last use. Once the brain becomes “hijacked” craving is always a possibility. Duhigg does believe however, that we can manipulate the Habit Loop to consciously and systematically  correct bad behaviors. If rewards are used appropriately then the habit can be brought under control.

So how do we correct bad habits? Here are a few key points:

  • identify a specific negative behavior that you intend to change.
  • What are the cues that fire off, setting the Habit Loop into motion?
  • What are the rewards? This must be very specific and detailed. Look for the underlying reward. For example, is it the cigarette, or going outside to smoke? Is it eating chocolate, or is it the change in brain chemistry that the chocolate provides? This part of habit change needs to be reviewed periodically. Remember, all behaviors, even negative ones have a positive intention. Look carefully for the positive intention behind your negative behaviors.
  • Think carefully about the routine in Duhigg’s Habit Loop. When learning new, more positive behaviors being mindful of the Routine is critical. Remember that when the routine becomes automatic a habit has developed. Like many behaviors awareness is critical. You cannot change a behavior that you do not acknowledge and recognize.

Writing this out, drawing a new Habit Loop is necessary. Don’t take shortcuts! A coach or therapist can help you with this, but with some self-motivation you can change on your own. It is, however, practically impossible to do alone if you don’t write out these details. Don’t ask why, just do it! Trust me, it works.

Habit change begins to take place at around 21 days. Virtually all habits can be corrected at around 90 days. Duhigg’s research indicates that once a habit develops it is always lurking beneath the surface, and can return if you lose your awareness. It will no longer take conscious work to keep it away, but you should be aware when you feel triggered by environmental cues and act accordingly.

We are all truly creatures of habit. An awareness of habit formation and correction can help us develop positive habits that are in line with our beliefs and lifestyle choices. Most of us have things we’d like to change so “drop ’em like a bad habit!”

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