The paradox of ignorance

The paradox of ignorance

From Imposter Syndrome to the Dunning Kruger Effect: How Do We Know What We Really Know?

Antonio Sgobba is a journalist. His latest book is “The Trust Society. From Plato to WhatsApp” published by Il Saggiatore. He was the head of the cultural section of IL, he collaborated with Reading, Wired, Page 99 and other publications. Since 2016 he has been working for Rai.

McArthur Wheeler could not go unnoticed. Forty-five years old, just under six feet tall and weighing just over 120 kilos, he was recognized without difficulty by witnesses as responsible for two shots in broad daylight in Pittsburgh. The surveillance cameras showed him face uncovered, gun in hand. When he was arrested he could not believe it: “But I was covered in juice!” he told the cops. Lemon juice. Wheeler had covered his face in lemon juice, convinced that this could guarantee him invisibility. Investigators reported that the robber had not improvised, but had carefully prepared. “The lemon juice burned my face and eyes, I was hard to see,” he would later tell the police. In the course of the preparations, aselfie with a Polaroid, to verify that the method was really effective. And in the photo he was actually not there – probably the acidity had prevented him from aiming well. McArthur had obtained the proof he was looking for. The lemon juice worked: it had become completely invisible.

David Dunning, a professor of social psychology at Cornell University, read the news in the 1996 World Almanac , Offbeat News Stories section . The psychologist thought: If Wheeler was too stupid to be a robber, maybe he was too stupid to know he was too stupid to be a robber. “His stupidity hid his own stupidity from him,” thought the psychologist. Dunning then wondered if it was possible to measure the level of competence that everyone believes they have by comparing it with real competence. In the following weeks he organized a research project with his graduate student, Justin Kruger. Their paper Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties of Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-assessmentsit was published in 1999 and has been a small classic of self-ignorance studies ever since. The result of the research of the two scholars is known as the “Dunning-Kruger effect”.

What is it about? “When people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they are crushed by a double burden: not only do they come to wrong conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their own incompetence prevents them from realizing it. On the contrary, as in the case of Wheeler, they have the impression that they are doing very well, ”explains Dunning.

People with very little experience have little awareness of their incompetence. It’s the Dunning Kruger effect: they make mistakes after mistakes but tend to believe they can get away with it.

Most of the time the ignorant don’t know they are ignorant, Dunning and Kruger suggest. Indeed, if we try to understand what we do not know through introspection we may not achieve anything. We can keep asking ourselves “What don’t I know?” to exhaustion, and give us answers, but we would never exhaust the infinite field of our ignorance. Looking inward does not always bring satisfactory results, the only way to get out of your metaignorance is to ask others.

Dunning explains the phenomenon this way: for every skill, there are very experienced people, so-so experienced, little-experienced and very little expert. The Dunning Kruger effect is this: people with very little experience have little awareness of their incompetence. They make mistakes after mistakes but still tend to believe they can get away with it.

The results were achieved through a series of studies on sense of humor, grammar and logic skills, which were later extended to other fields. Taking into account the 25 percent of the sample who had obtained the worst results in each test, it was observed that on average, on a scale of 1 to 100, the subjects gave themselves a score of 62, although their actual evaluation did not exceed the 12 points. This is because in many fields the act of evaluating the correctness of someone’s answer requires the same skill required to choose the correct answer. It would therefore seem that the tendency to overestimate oneself is inevitable.

This should make us reflect when we speak of ignorance in terms of a disease that can be cured: if we are all sick, no one is. “People live in the shadow of their own unavoidable ignorance. We just don’t know everything about everything. There are holes in our knowledge, gaps in our skills ”writes Dunning at the beginning of his latest essay. We can console ourselves by thinking that ignorance concerns peripheral areas of our experience, obscure or irrelevant themes, however without implications in our daily life. And economists argue that much ignorance is rational: acquiring certain skills may not bring benefits that justify the effort made to acquire them. But we also know that not all ignorance is peripheral or rational. Part of our ignorance, perhaps the most important part is central and mysterious. Our ignorance concerns essential aspects: it concerns ourselves.


The worst think they are the best, we said. But from Dunning’s studies a specular fact emerges: even the best are wrong, in the opposite direction. The most competent tend to underestimate their skills. They come to the right answers easily and believe that others can come to the same conclusions just as easily. Consequently, when it comes to rating themselves, they don’t rank on the high end. It is the fault of the false consent effect (the tendency to think that others act similar to one’s own), and is consistent with knowledge attribution studies, which show that people overestimate the amount of their own knowledge.

A specular fact emerges from Dunning’s studies: even the best are wrong, in the opposite direction. The most competent tend to underestimate their skills.

The phenomenon is also known as the “impostor syndrome”. Sufferers of this syndrome – also known as “impostorism” – would never explicitly say “I feel like an impostor”, yet they feel exactly that way. Even in cases where he achieves success and recognition, this person feels that his success is due to some stroke of luck, a mysterious combination, or a great unrepeatable effort; he believes that his achievements are due only to chance and are not rather the result of his skills or competences. Next time I will fail for sure, he thinks.

The term “impostor syndrome” was coined by Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the late 1970s, when the two psychotherapists at Georgia State University analyzed the behavior of a group of women in leadership roles. They encountered a widespread feeling: the interviewees felt they were not as capable as others believed. Clance confesses:

“I had the typical feelings of imposter syndrome in college. I had to take an important exam and I was afraid it would go wrong. I only remembered the things I didn’t know and not the things I was prepared for. My friends began to worry, so I kept my doubts to myself. I believed my insecurities were due to my education. When I started teaching, I heard similar fears in the students who came for advice. They had excellent marks and records. One of them said to me: ‘I feel like an impostor here, among all these brilliant people’. ”

The syndrome mainly affects women. The trend is also confirmed by the most recent studies. Two American sociologists, Jessica Collett and Jade Avelis, have wondered, for example, why so many women who embark on university careers at some point opt ​​for the so-called downshifting , that is, because they give up a high-level position and their own ambitions. It doesn’t happen because they want to “start a family”, as is often thought. The research, carried out on 460 doctoral students, revealed that the cause is actually the impostor syndrome. If they give up their career it is because they believe they are not up to par and that they have arrived in their position by some coincidence, not by merit.

The impostor syndrome is frequent especially in contexts where competition is high and where there are few figures of ‘mentors’ able to give a realistic assessment.

However, imposterism is not exclusive to the female gender. Two Purdue University psychologists, Shamala Kumar and Carolyn M. Jagacinski, measured the different reactions in men and women. The result is that women who see themselves as impostors also often show a willingness to show that they can engage and do better than others, and therefore compete more. Men, on the other hand, show a desire to avoid competition in areas where they feel most vulnerable. “They are afraid of making a bad impression, of appearing weak,” Jagacinski says.

Experts have observed how the syndrome is frequent especially in contexts where competition is high and where, moreover, there are few figures of “mentors” able to give a realistic assessment. Precisely for this reason, American universities often provide female students with teachers who can exercise this role of guidance. The effect, however, is not always the desired one. Often, in fact, the impression of feeling like an impostor is sharpened by the confrontation with the teachers. “I thought my tutor was SuperWoman,” said one student. According to many experts, the only solution to “impostorism” is to talk more about one’s own insecurities. “When people see those they respect in trouble or listen to them admitting that they have not always known everything,

In fact, the more we expand the perimeter of our knowledge the more we will be exposed to what we don’t know. For many people, impostor syndrome is the natural symptom of skill acquisition. It is no coincidence that this syndrome mainly affects those who work in science and technology: areas in which it is difficult to falsify one’s knowledge. And a certain amount of insecurity could sometimes even be healthy. You can suffer from the impostor syndrome in contexts such as those experienced by a teacher at the first lesson in front of a real class, or at the first test of a professional, a mechanic or a lawyer. Cases in which this type of insecurity reflects a respect for the limits of one’s abilities – limits that everyone has, even the so-called “best” – and shows a beneficial humility:


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