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TikTok: So You Think You Can Do Anything?

A little bit of knowledge might make you think you have expert status in areas from medicine to mountain climbing —when that happens, look to the Dunning-Kruger effect, and take extra care.

By Ben Rein

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@dr.brein Raise your hand if you think you can do this 👋 *That* is the Dunning-Kruger Effect ________ This video was supported by the Pulitzer Center through the Truth Decay Grant Initiative, in collaboration with OpenMind Magazine. To read more about this topic, check out the accompanying article on OpenMind’s website, found in my bio 🔗. #PulitzerCenter #Psychology #Science #dunningkruger #confidence ♬ original sound - Dr. Ben Rein

“You ever see something like this, and you’re like: ‘Yeah, I could do that?’"

I do this all the time honestly. Not what she’s doing, but assuming that I’m capable of very difficult tasks.

There’s a name for this: it’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect. It’s the natural human tendency to overestimate our abilities before we know that much about something. This graph explains it: When you know very little about something, you’re likely to be overconfident, like me when I saw this video (show picture behind me). At that moment, I was standing at the peak of Mount Stupid—but I guarantee that if I'd tried it, I would quickly lose confidence. Indeed, as we learn more, we realize how little we know and we fall into the valley of despair.

Here's another great example: Almost 10% of Americans think they could beat a gorilla or a lion in a fight. Without ever experiencing that, it’s easy to be overconfident.

But what’s important about Dunning-Kruger is that everyone’s vulnerable to it. It’s not about how smart you are, it’s about how much experience you have in that specific domain. And unfortunately, science and medicine are two fields that are particularly vulnerable to Dunning-Kruger.

It's easy to fall into it. You read an article about psychedelics, and you feel like you know a lot about this new, exciting topic, so you start talking about it, and that’s great, there’s nothing wrong with that. But when it’s related to something complicated like neuroscience, there’s probably a lot more information out there that you haven’t learned yet. So, when you start talking about it, it can be reckless or even dangerous.

In general, it’s good to be aware of our human tendency to overestimate ourselves and our abilities—whether it’s related to doing this (points at the chair) or learning something new. And the next time someone starts teaching you something and they seem full of confidence, I implore you to ask yourself: Are they truly an expert, or are they at the peak of Mount Stupid?

Dunning had smart advice about how to protect ourselves from this effect: When you think you have an important insight, step back for a moment and ask yourself two questions. “Could I be wrong?” and “What don’t I know?”

January 9, 2024