The Dunning-Kruger Effect

I read on Facebook today about the Dunning-Kruger Effect, named after Justin Kruger and David Dunning of Cornell University, although the idea behind it is rather older. The link pointed to a radio programme, the Science Show on ABC Radio National, where on 8 May, presenter Robyn Williams talked to Daniel Keogh about it, though I read the transcript there rather than listen to the programme. For most things when you want to think about the details its a better way to consume radio, as I’m finding with the current BBC Radio 4 series ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects‘, where both the transcript and there, even more importantly the images of the objects make it almost essential to follow the series on-line. The broadcasts themselves make good listening, more as entertainment, with the text and images being so much more informative.

The D-K effect is all about how people who know nothing about a subject are the most confident of their ability, or, as Keogh quotes Darwin ‘Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than knowledge’ and it’s something we are probably all pretty familiar with.

And Keogh rubs it in for photographers “If you’ve ever fancied yourself as a photographer, you might know just how this feels. It only takes a weekend workshop for you to suddenly realise that the poorly lit snaps of your cat in the backyard aren’t quite the masterpieces you’d once imagined.

I never felt I was a great cat photographer, but certainly recognise something it what he says, though I was fortunate at the first workshop I attended not only to have a few pictures among the dross that were more promising, but also to have a photographer running the workshop who recognised this and set me off in a more productive direction.

But it’s sometimes hard to convince people that they need to work at it, thanks to the D-K Effect, as I often found with students.  Those who did best were those who were prepared to listen and learn, and usually those who showed rather less confidence in their own abilities.

Except, as he points out, life often rewards the self-confident, even if this self-confidence has no basis in ability. Some of the ignorant incompetents manage to convince enough other people through their charm and charisma that they rise to the top and become in charge of things that they really know nothing about.  They become politicians or managers because of their ‘overconfident incompetence‘. The arts in general and photography in particular have more than their share of such people ‘fully controlled by the Dunning-Kruger effect‘ and it perhaps explains many things that are otherwise incomprehensible.

It is partly this kind of effect that has made it important to me throughout my time as a photographer to belong to formal or informal groups of photographers who have been able and willing to say what they thought about each others work. At times I’ve had things pulled to pieces (and performed a similar service for others) but it really helps. Of course sometimes I’ve gone away thinking that the others were wrong, or just didn’t understand what I was trying to do, but it’s always something that makes me think again, even if I sometimes end up with the same conclusion.

The show I’m part of that’s opening tonight in Croydon is not the greatest show the world has ever seen, but is something that comes in part out of that kind of critical process, by eight photographers who regularly meet and show each other their work in progress.  I like some of the work more than other pictures, but I think most of it is interesting to look at.

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