4 reasons understanding the Dunning-Kruger effect will improve your programming career

Pete is a developer at a MNC. His performance is average and his code is in usually a large ball of mess. When Pete receives a low score for his performance review, he confronts his manager and argues that his manager is making a severe misjudgement.

To Pete, he is a great programmer. But most of his colleagues and his manager agree that Pete needs to work on his technical ability.

Does this scenario sounds familiar to you? Have you work with someone, who in spite of their terrible work performance, is confident that their ability is good? You might be experiencing the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Before we delved into the 4 reasons how understanding the Dunning-Kruger effect could benefit your career, let's understand this cognitive bias.

What is Dunning-Kruger effect?

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which individuals wrongly assess their cognitive ability.

This bias was first described by psychologist David Dunning and Justin Kruger in 1999. Students were tested on their perceived performance on humour, logical reasoning and grammar. The results of the 3 studies show that those who are the least competent at a task grossly overestimate their ability as compare to their peers. Whereas, those in the top percentile underestimate their ability relative to their peers.

Besides this discovery, the study also shows that incompetent individuals could not correctly recognize competence as they lack the insight to do so.

People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.
-- Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments, Justin Kruger and David Dunning

This makes it sounds like the incompetence might be stuck in a loop of inflated self-assessment. However, there is a silver lining in this studies. The psychologies find that, paradoxically, with training and by improving the skills of the less competent, the participants in the studies are able to recognize the limitations of their abilities.

Improving as a developer

  1. Become more aware to spot your cognitive bias

    Probably like me, your first response to this study is to think that it is not describing the behavior of someone else. But the Dunner-Kruger effect happens to the best of us. For example a brilliant scientist could be incompetent in grant writing, but still believe his/her ability in the science domain translate fluidly to the writing domain. What we have to do is to remain aware of how this cognitive bias could keep us in a state of illusionary expertise.

    Being aware is the first step to enhancing our capability.

  2. Be more willing to seek out training and improve your existing skills

    If your perception in life is that you are competent sufficiently and you did not see much flaws in your capability, will you seek knowledge to improve your way of doing things? There are so many different aspects of software development, it is impossible to be a know-it-all programmer.

    We all know that the IT field is a fast evolving industry, if we fall into the Dunner-Kruger trap, we might soon find our skills out of date.

  3. Question your response to criticism in an objective manner

    The Dunner-Kruger effect shows that a little knowledge can lead to overconfidence. Criticisms are difficult to hear but from the studies, we can see that how getting feedback and training can provide valuable insights to a more objective view of our capabilities.

    He who knows best knows how little he knows. -- Thomas Jefferson

  4. Strive towards closing your knowledge gap

    Now we figure that we are less than perfect programmers, perhaps with the tendency to overestimate our capacity. How do we use this piece of information logically? One way I like to look at this is that if you do not know what you don't know, how will you know what you not know? If, you are not aware of what good coding practices are, how will you be able to evaluate your own coding practices?

    Be humble. Take criticisms objectively. Be hungry for knowlege.

  5. Resources

    Justin Kruger and David Dunning 1999, Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments, Cornell University

    Kendra Cherry 2019, The Dunning-Kruger Effect, verwellmind

    Mark Murphy 2017, The Dunning-Kruger Effect Shows Why Some People Think They're Great Even When Their Work Is Terrible, Forbes

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