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Skilled People Doubt Themselves; The Unskilled Are Confident

·830 words·4 mins
Psyched for the Weekend

The first rule of Dunning-Kruger Club is you do not know you’re in Dunning-Kruger Club.

-Internet Meme


The fundamental cause of trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.

Bertrand Russell, 1933, lamenting the rise of Nazi Germany


I have written 11 books, but each time I think, “Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.”

-Maya Angelou

Hello, Impostor Syndrome, My Old Friend

Successful people often talk about having impostor syndrome. A sneaking feeling that they just can’t shake that makes them doubt their own accomplishments. Sometimes this feeling of doubt is even accompanied by a persistent fear that they will be found out, labeled a fraud.

I have a very close, very successful friend who has actually had a series of vivid nightmares about it. About being unmasked Scooby Doo style. “That’s not an esteemed academic at all, it’s the amusement park owner Old Man Jones! Lock ’em up.”

In these dreams, there’s been a mistake, and everything they’ve worked for is taken from them. Because it was never meant for them anyway.

And it’s at those times that I have to remind them, “I know it’s hard, but the doubts are the surest sign you’re on the right track. This is just impostor syndrome. Remember Dunning-Kruger.”

“I know, I know,” they say. They continue having those doubts anyway (because the doubts are persistent little buggers), but press on.

Because they know that one of the oddest phenomena surrounding how we tend to socially compare and form our self-concepts explains what’s going on: Dunning-Kruger effect.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

A lot of scientific research doesn’t ever reach public awareness, aside from a single summary article or two in a lifestyle magazine. You know what I’m talking about: “New Study Says [Surprising Finding, Chosen by the Publication In Order to Get Some Clicks, Often Not Actually Supported by the Research If You Actually Read the Original Report].”

But Dunning-Kruger effect is a little different. It’s very well known for a psychological finding. I mean, it even has its own memes.

So what is Dunning-Kruger effect anyway? It’s basically what Bertrand Russell was complaining about in the above quote. Simply stated, Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias whereby the most unskilled or incompetent individuals think they are much better at things than they actually are.

As Dunning and Kruger wrote in their  seminal work of research, “We propose that those with limited knowledge in a domain suffer from a dual burden: Not only do they reach mistaken conclusions and make regrettable errors, but their incompetence robs them of their ability to realize it.”

They also discovered that intelligent, competent individuals are more likely to make a mistake in the _opposite _direction and underestimate their own abilities. Typically, experts do not recognize the full extent of their skills but instead rate themselves perhaps a little above the average person (but not much), often rating themselves below where the incompetent folks would rank their own abilities.

So when competent people begin to receive external validation that matches the extent of their own skills, many of them feel like they don’t deserve it. It plays games with their heads. They feel like impostors.

This is why Maya Freaking Angelou has impostor syndrome.

Be Wary of 100% Confident Folks & If You’re Doubting Yourself, You’re Probably Doing Good Work

In some respects, Dunning-Kruger effect is a pretty frustrating and depressing phenomenon. No one wants to deal with overconfident amateurs, especially ones who spew falsehoods without a shred of doubt. And it’s a sad thought that skilled people often doubt themselves.

But I’ve found a few important takeaways here:

  1. Confidence in other people can be attractive, but don’t fall prey to mistaking it for competence. I get people wanting to put their best foot forward (and even though I’m personally plagued by doubts, I really do try to be calm and self-assured around people, particularly when I’m first meeting them), but if a person seems completely incapable of modesty? Well, it gives me pause. It’s not normal for a skilled person to be fully confident. They typically know the limits of their knowledge and their abilities. And the areas they need to work on. If someone doesn’t seem to grasp those things, I’m unlikely to trust their self-assessments.
  2. If you are experiencing impostor syndrome, it paradoxically means that you probably deserve the success you’re meeting with. The doubts are obnoxious as hell, but they’re also a great sign that you are probably very talented indeed. I’ll say it one more time: Maya Freaking Angelou has impostor syndrome.


This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.


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