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From Dunning-Kruger Effect to Imposter Syndrome: Doubts and the self-belief of intelligence

Some people have an exaggerated notion of their knowledge and intelligence, while others fear they are faking it.

This happened in Pittsburg in 1995. A man walked into a bank and robbed it at gunpoint in broad daylight. He wasn’t wearing a mask or any other disguise. In fact, he was so confident that he even looked at the security camera and smiled. He then held up another bank at gunpoint. When arrested, he was very surprised. “But I wore the juice,” he told the police.

The man, it seems, was under the impression that if he rubbed lemon juice on his face it would become invisible. He had read somewhere that lemon juice worked as invisible ink, and assumed that it would also make his face invisible to cameras. Police said he seemed pretty sure that the juice trick would work.

When David Dunning, a Cornell psychology professor, read about the case, he wondered if the robber was just incompetent, or so dumb that he did not have a clue about his incompetence. Dunning and a graduate student Justin Kruger decided to study this behavior.

The result of their study in 1999 is what is called the Dunning-Kruger effect, which means people who have little knowledge think they know more than they really do: “(it) is a cognitive bias in which low-ability individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability as much higher than it really is.”

I had not heard of the phenomenon until I read an article titled ‘The confidence of the incompetent.’ Such people can be found in work situations as well as on social occasions. They have an exaggerated notion of their knowledge and intelligence. They assume they know more without realizing that they don’t, and they lie through their teeth. It is difficult not to get provoked by such behavior, but it is best to take a deep breath and move on.

The comedian John Cleese of Monty Python and Yes Minister fame has a rather blunt interpretation of the Dunning-Kruger effect: “The problem with people like this is that they are so stupid that they have no idea how stupid they are… You’ll have to be relatively intelligent to realize how stupid you are.” He was referring to Hollywood and Fox TV viewers.

I did a Google search to find out if there are any famous figures who fit into this category, and it threw up a name not difficult to guess. Esquire magazine called Donald Trump “a walking case study for the Dunning-Kruger effect.” New York Magazine described him as “the world’s highest-profile case of the Dunning-Kruger effect.”

But what about the people who got taken in by his bluster? Who voted him in? Why do they fall for such leaders and their blatant lies? Dunning says that this syndrome “may well be the key” to such voter behavior.

Many of us may have, at one time or another, overestimated our competence. Dunning says, “The problem of unrecognized ignorance is one that visits us all.”

There is a flip-side to the Dunning-Kruger effect, in a manner of speaking: it is called the Imposter Syndrome — a term used to describe “a feeling of inadequacy or self-doubt, despite there being no evidence to support such a belief.” You are good at your job, you know your subject, you have done well, and yet you have this pervasive feeling that you are not competent.

I know a bit about it because I have it, but for a long time I did not know the name. Michelle Obama said recently she still experiences imposter syndrome on a regular basis. She told students: “It doesn’t go away, that feeling that you shouldn’t take me that seriously. What do I know? I share that with you because we all have doubts in our abilities, about our power and what that power is.”

I was talking to a friend, a senior executive in a global company, about it and she said it’s quite common in the corporate world. Earlier it was believed that women experience it more, but psychologists say that the syndrome “affects all kinds of people from all parts of life”, both men and women. Neil Gaiman and Maya Angelou have experienced this phenomenon. It can make the best feel as if they are frauds.

I find it comforting that “an estimated 70 per cent of people experience these impostor feelings at some point in their lives”, according to a study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science and quoted in Time magazine.

I am retired now but I still struggle with it. Some say it is a good thing because it keeps our ego in check. The trait that I admire the most in people is humility.

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