Confidence, Competence and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

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If you've not seen this movie, I'd recommend it for all kinds of reasons, including its illustration of the Dunning-Kruger EffectIf you've not seen this movie, I'd recommend it for all kinds of reasons, including its illustration of the Dunning-Kruger EffectI wrote some time ago about the relationship between confidence and competence, and how when prioritising learning needs the former can often act as a reasonable proxy for the latter. There was, however, some interesting psychological research towards the back end of the last century that identified circumstances in which this correlation not only breaks down but becomes positively misleading.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect refers to the way that people who are grossly incompetent at a skill will cheerfully think they are quite good at it, as below a certain skill threshold you lack the knowledge and awareness to recognise how truly bad at something you are. Conversely, experts routinely underestimate how much better they are then the merely competent because one of the hallmarks of expertise is being able to do something fluently and without struggle.

This means that if you meet someone who describes an activity as ‘ not that hard’, they are likely to be either very very good at it or very very bad.

I used to come across this phenomenon occasionally when running the postgraduate courses at Birmingham Conservatoire. It didn’t often happen at audition (we usually filtered out the truly not-up-to-it applicants before that stage), but there were some interesting phone conversations with people who clearly did not have a clue. Satie’s Gymnopédies are beautiful little gems, but not the kind of repertoire you want to boast about working on when you are aiming to establish your credibility as a potentially professional pianist.

I was thinking about this the other day in relation to novice choral directors. When faced with the possibility of standing in front of a choir and directing them, people usually come out with one of two types of response. The first is, ‘Blimey, that’s scary, would I be good enough?’, and the second is, ‘Yeah, sure, I could do that’.

I’ve always tended to feel more optimistic about the chances of people who give the first kind of response becoming a decent director than the second. Yes, they probably flounder more during their early attempts, and there’s quite a lot of time wasted while you try to get them to stop apologising all the time and just make some music, while the gung-ho types get stuck straight in.

But I’ve always suspected that someone who feels blasé about the prospect of directing an ensemble hasn’t fully grasped what the job entails. It may not be the exclusive province of the specially-endowed as the maestro myth would have us believe, but it is certainly a significant step up in its musical demands from only operating a single musician at once (i.e. yourself). If you don’t recognise the nature of the challenge, how are you going to be able to notice when you’re not achieving it?

One of the other results from the studies that identified the Dunning-Kruger effect was that a modicum of training enabled previously over-confident rookies to develop a much more accurate assessment of their skills (and lack thereof). Yet anyone who has been involved in training conductors has met a good many directors who present themselves for training but only seem willing to tinker round the edges - they seem happy to refine techniques they can already do reasonably well, but unwilling or unable to grasp the major issues they should really be addressing. And you can’t help suspecting that these folk were the ones who were in the over-confident camp when they started out.

So one of the key questions for a trainer would seem to be: which training activities are most likely to help people recognise the nature of their ineptitude? And - particularly for those who have been safe in that ineptitude for some time - how do we keep them feeling safe enough to find the courage to face these demons squarely?

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