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  • Writer's pictureRyan Allen

Staying mindful of humility

Something I have been thinking about almost incessantly these days is a concept in social psychology called the Dunning-Kruger effect. What I have come to realize is just how applicable this is to almost every area of my life, ranging from my actual knowledge and opinions, to my mindfulness meditation practices and basic perceptions of reality.

Figure 1: The Dunning-Kruger curve, adapted from the findings of Kruger et al., 1999, a social psychology study which examined people's awareness of their true skill in a certain area. (Image: Wikimedia)

The basic idea is summed up by this curve. Whenever we embark on learning a new concept, acquiring a new skill, etc. with the goal of expertise, we actually quickly gain confidence in our knowledge or abilities. The problem is, this is our relative competence, not objective competence, because we don’t realize just how complicated the subject matter is, or how little we actually know, or how far from expertise we actually are at something. We of course start to get better than when we first started, but we interpret this improvement as far greater than it actually is, and overestimate our competence.

As we learn or train more, we start to realize that there’s a lot more room for improvement. Rather than achieving mastery, we’re just at the tip of the iceberg. I cannot tell you how many areas of my life where I feel like I am in the “Valley of Despair,” having fallen off the precipice of thinking I was knowledgeable or skillful at something. However, there is something positive about falling into this valley: if you look at the x-axis of true competence, you’re actually further along. Objectively, you are better than where you were before, and at the end of the day that is the goal. Yes, you may have been more confident at the previous peak, but this casual, often benign hubris is far less beneficial in the end than true progress.

The problem is we are not wired to avoid the Dunning-Kruger effect, and it can be incredibly subtle and hard to recognize when it’s taking place in us. In David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech “This is Water” (which I cannot recommend highly enough), he discusses a “natural self-centeredness” with which we view the world, instinctively unconscious of our many ignorances or incompetences. One of the many messages he conveys, though, is a challenge to use this concept to be just a little less certain of the claims we make, of the views we hold. It is incredibly easy to consider oneself an expert on something, all the while not knowing that really one sits atop the “Peak of ‘Mount Stupid.’” Yet another implication is that it becomes so easy to assume we know everything about everyone, and all that they experience. Therefore, this realization of our inherently selfish worldview can bring about not only profound humility in our beliefs, but empathy in our judgments of others.

Now let’s be clear: I am far from immune to this passive self-pride and assumption of competence, and need constant reminding of this message myself. The important thing is that I am trying to be active in recognizing moments where it comes out, and actively working towards a better level of self-awareness. The reality is this aspect of our humanity (our “default setting” as Wallace calls it) doesn’t seem to ever entirely disappear. Rather, we can try to help it fade, or simply get better control over how we act on it.

For me, this has looked like being a lot, lot more cautious with the certainty with which I make any claims, or the degree with which I claim to be knowledgeable on a topic. As I mentioned, I frequently find myself in the “Valley of Despair” in countless situations. I am repeatedly humbled on my scientific knowledge by expert researchers, doctors, and collaborators in my work. Through meditation, I come to realize just how constantly I get distracted, including during the meditation session itself. These moments of humility could go on and on, but the point is not to avoid them, but to embrace them. Without these reality checks, one can never progress to the so-called “Slope of Enlightenment.” Everything is a spectrum of self-improvement, and there is essentially no such thing as manifesting true “expertise.” It is an ideal to strive towards, but even widely-considered “experts” in their fields will be the first to admit that there is always more to learn, or they can always get better.

This brings me to my final extrapolation from all of this, which is that the Dunning-Kruger realization can also help you determine who the real “experts” are, and it probably is not who you would expect. The people with the greatest expertise are not those who are sure of their claims, or use absolute, superlative terms. Instead, they are the ones who express the greatest hesitancy, insert caveats to everything they say, ask far more questions than provide answers. They speak in terms of probabilities rather than black-and-white; they’re very comfortable admitting when they don’t know. Few to no people can do this 24/7/365, which is why I say it’s hard to consider anyone a true “expert” in anything. Nonetheless, it’s something we can all work towards, constantly reminding ourselves to think and act in this way to avoid this unconscious default way of going about life. The more we check ourselves and our certainties, and encourage those around us to do the same, the further along we’ll find ourselves on the true curve of progress.


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