There’s a new guy on the gig. He’s unusually gregarious. He comes up an introduces himself. Super friendly. Talks a big game about all the work he’s been on. You wonder why you haven’t met him before.
The gig starts.
He folds hard. Really hard. Mistakes left and right. Wrong rhythms, missed notes. But he doesn’t seem fazed at all.
After the gig he’s his normal friendly and gregarious self. Talks about how great everyone sounded and offers his business card. How can he be so outgoing? Isn’t he concerned about how he played?
We’ve all met this player. I could never explain it to myself until someone told me about the Dunning-Kruger effect.
Here it is in a nutshell (completely stolen from the wikipedia article, which is a great read BTW):
The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein relatively unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than is accurate. The bias was first experimentally observed by David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University in 1999. Dunning and Kruger attributed the bias to the metacognitive inability of the unskilled to evaluate their own ability level accurately. Their research also suggests that conversely, highly skilled individuals may underestimate their relative competence, erroneously assuming that tasks that are easy for them also are easy for others.
So our super friendly super folding musician is working under a cognitive bias. Lacking the skill to play well may also mean lacking the ability to assess his playing.
However, that’s not the most interesting part of the Dunning-Kruger effect. I’ve never suffered from unshakeable self confidence. If anything, I’ve always felt slightly under prepared and completely aware of how much there is left to learn. I’ve always priced a little too low and slightly undersold myself.
The second part of the study may provide some relief to the rest of us. It states that the highly skilled participants consistently underrated their skills. They did this for the exact opposite reason as low skilled performers. Performing at a high level makes you extremely aware of how much you don’t know yet.
So, if you’ve worked hard, learned a lot, and still have a tendency to undersell yourself, there’s good news. That’s how most of the high skill performers assess themselves.