Ignorance is Bliss. Why Learning more can Briefly reduce your Confidence

Written by
Michael Wells

Ignorance is Bliss. Why Learning more can Briefly reduce your Confidence

Written by
Michael Wells

Ignorance is Bliss. Why Learning more can Briefly reduce your Confidence

Written by
Michael Wells
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As humans, we love to grow and learn.

Curiosity is actually a fundamental feature of the human mind, and it enables us to discover tools, resources, knowledge and skills that can improve our lives.

We're probably worse than cats in this regard.

But have you ever enthusiastically devoted your attention to learning something new... only to discover that instead of feeling your confidence and understanding increase in that area, you felt less confident, and less knowledgeable about that area than when you began learning?

Welcome to the Dunning-Kruger effect.

What is the Dunning-Kruger effect?

Simply put, the Dunning-Kruger effect describes a particular cognitive bias.

It observes that when you are ignorant of the details of a particular area of understanding, humans quickly become over-confident, because they simply don't know what they don't know.

By contrast, more deeply-educated people will sometimes be cautious or uncertain, because they are aware of how much they don't know.

In the field of psychology, the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is. It is related to the cognitive bias of illusory superiority and comes from the inability of people to recognize their lack of ability
- Wikipedia

This effect happens because of a mechanic I call the question-answer balance.

In you first introduction to a new topic, you have a wealth of new understanding and perspective that feels exciting and complete. More importantly you have no immediate questions - so you feel like you fully understand the essential fundamentals.

But as you go deeper, questions are raised, followed by more questions, and still more. Eventually, you feel like you have far more questions and answers, and that creates rational uncertainty.

This effect happens even among the best scientists in the world.

As the father of modern rocket science famously noted;

"With every new answer... science has consistently discovered at least three new questions."
- Wernher von Braun

Cool, so what does this have to do with Self-Development?

For anyone doing self-development work - and perhaps for coaches especially - the Dunning-Kruger effect is important to understand.  

As you develop knowledge, there can be a short-term, direct impact on your self confidence.

As you begin learning anything deeply, your level of confidence that you "get it" will decline for awhile, until you start to understand how to put all of this information together usefully- even though there's still SO MUCH you don't know yet.

Here's how exposing yourself to new knowledge can affect your confidence over time...

How Dunning-Kruger Messes with us

"A little learning is a dangerous thing..."
- Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism

Let's break down some of the risks;

  • In the early stages, you feel like you know everything, and many people will stop learning further.
  • In this phase, it's easy to be over-confident and make poor decisions.
  • Once you begin realizing you don't know enough, and begin digging to learn more, you discover how much more there is to learn. It's daunting. Many people will give up here because "it's just too much."
  • It takes support, and devotion, to slog through the learning or skills-development process to reach some level of meaningful skills improvement.
  • Often, when you have made substantial progress, you won't see it, because all you can see is how much mountain is left to climb.

Think about this...

  • Martial arts
  • Learning to draw, paint, sing, or develop another artistic talent
  • Playing a musical instrument
  • Learning a language
  • Developing a skill
  • Bodybuilding

How many things have you wanted to learn, and enthusiastically started the process, only to then realize how much effort that was going to take... and you dropped the ball.

Here's a variation of the Dunning-Kruger graph, which illustrates some of the failure points. The Program Termination Zone is where most people will give up.

Lessons to Take Away

Whether you're into self-development, or you're a life coach helping others, understanding this effect should be an important part of your personal growth strategy.

  1. Understand that you're likely to discover that anything you want to develop will be harder than you thought. Accept that from the beginning, and commit anyway.
  2. Surround yourself (or your coachee) with a community to keep you on-track and focused on your goals.
  3. Make your development a habit. Autopilot helps through the tough parts.
  4. In the early stages, enjoy the excitement, but don't make costly decisions due to your over-confidence. An example might be reading an article on stock investing, and then pouring your life savings into the market all at once.
  5. Over time, develop real measures of your progress. Journaling is tremendously helpful here, particularly in areas that you can't "see" easily, such as your happiness, or social skills. Even things like learning music, dance, or drawing, can be recorded and journalled so that you can objectively see your growth.

Now that you know about the effect, hopefully you can approach your self-development efforts more effectively, with minimal risk of throwing in the towel.

Go kick butt!

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First published on 
. Last updated on 
August 18, 2019

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