“If you think that you are smart, you are dumb. If you think that you are dumb, you are smart.”

When I was around 14 years old, this was a phrase that I always used to say in my friendship group in high school. Being 20 now (I’m slightly older albeit with questionable maturity), I think this phrase is awfully blunt. Nonetheless, I think there is some insight to be gained by this phrase.

It made sense to 14 year old me, that those who were siting on their laurels and proud with their performance (i.e. perceive themselves as smart) would not seek to improve themselves. They were unable to see the holes and gaps in their knowledge within whatever sphere of competency – be it academics, music, sports etc. On the other hand, for those that perceived that they were ‘dumb’ were in fact able to realise their own inadequacies, and hence are able to take action, learn from their mistakes, and ultimately achieve new heights of growth.

This single quote changed the way I thought about school and learning. It implied that IQ was not set in stone, but that it could be improved by conscientious hard work. All that was required was a change in mindset.

Little did I know however, that my observations had a name – being known as the Dunning-Kruger effect (this Ted-ED video explains it quite succinctly). The Dunning-Kruger effect is an observation of social psychology that describes the cognitive bias in which people with low ability at a task overestimate their competency. In other words, it is the belief that we know something when we simply don’t. A massive implication of this is that we are unable to tell the difference of what we are or are not good at. This effect had been observed in many spheres of life – be it chess, driving, or sports – where we continually overestimate our abilities.

In a metaphorical sense, the Dunning-Kruger effect can be thought of as the silhouette of a spotlight. The circle of light represents what we perceive we are competent at, and the darkness that envelops this circle represents what we don’t know – essentially that which is in the dark. The diameter of the circle represents the extent of our knowledge – where as the spotlight increases in size, so does our knowledge. Albert Einstein once said that “as our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it.” The more we know, the more we realise what we have yet to learn. This observation was also found by Dunning and Kruger where those who were the best in any field ranked themselves lower than their actual performance. It is fascinating that knowledge – the very benchmark for competency – actually reduces our perception of our own ability.

The Dunning-Kruger effect therefore, elucidates the idea of a mis-calibration in perceiving ourselves. This begs the question: How then do we have a right perception of ourselves? Is it even possible without the assistance of others? This may not be possible, however by simply being aware of this mis-calibration is already a huge step. If we are to overcome the downsides of this effect, it may be beneficial to try to evaluate our situation as someone on the sidelines – or to imagine any of our friends trying to give us advice. However, this would never substitute the value of another pair of eyes – as a friend would bring a different blend of knowledge, wisdom, and experience to the table.

With this evident mis-calibration, the ‘sweet spot’ of self-perception is something that we should strive towards. To strive towards this – would be true humility. As Charles Spurgeon (aka The Prince of Preachers) once said:

Humility is to make a right estimate of one’s self.

Charles H. Spurgeon

Once again, here is the tactless phrase of 14 year old me:

“If you think that you are smart, you are dumb. If you think that you are dumb, you are smart.”