The Dunning-Kruger effect is a term for our inability to step back and objectively look at our aptitudes and behaviors. This is especially obvious when it comes to bombastic folk who act as if they know it all. These windbags talk incessantly about their own world view, but refuse to acknowledge the validity of any other. It makes sense, of course, because they’ve boxed themselves in with their pomposity, so that whatever is in the box is all that is real, and they know everything in their box.
Many people are touched by this effect in a small way, so that even if they are open-minded about some things, other ideas are boxed off, and they simply will not entertain different possibilities, especially in areas such as politics, current issues, religion. Which is why I try to stay away from such topics. I don’t mind people disagreeing with my own views if they extend to me the same courtesy I extend to them of listening to what they have to say, but too often, they have to have the last word. Or rather, the only word. And so I’ve learned to let them have that word early on to save a whole lot of aggravation later.
I hope I’m not one of those who are closed off without being aware of it. I do have pet ideas, of course — we all do — but I tend to think the way this Dunning-Kruger effect rules my life lies in a different direction, either by my underestimating my intellectual capability (some people think I’m smarter and more knowledgeable than I feel I am) or, as I so often fear, by my overestimating my capability and thinking I’m smarter than I really am. I have no way of knowing which is the truth because of the above stated inability for us to observe ourselves objectively.
I don’t think I have locked myself into a narrow box, though. I’ve always been aware that there is so much more out there than what I know. (Which is perhaps why I sometimes think I’m not all that smart or knowledgeable — I can sense how little I know, how little I can know.)
From what my mother told me, as a baby and as a toddler, and even into my early schoolgirl days, I idolized my older brother. It seemed to me he could do anything, and that year of life experience he had over me made him seem . . . omniscient. Each year, I could hardly wait until my birthday so I could catch up to him, and it always came as a shock that he was still a year older, still a year wiser.
Having bad eyesight at an early age added to the awareness of all that I didn’t know. It also created a sort of cognitive dissonance where I knew I was smart enough to get good grades but was too ignorant to know what everyone else seemed to know intuitively, such as what the names of streets were and how to tell the different trees apart. Even when I got my glasses and realized how everyone knew such things — they could see street signs! They could see individual leaves! — the dissonance remained.
My father didn’t believe in television for children. He wanted to raise his kids to be independent thinkers (as long as we thought the way he did), and that lack of cultural conditioning added to the feeling of not knowing. I remember a group of girls giggling about double-barreled slingshots, and they laughed at me when I asked what those were. It wasn’t until many years later when I happened to see a Beverly Hillbillies show that I got the joke. Way too little, way too late!
This idea of elusive knowledge, of knowledge waiting for me made me excited about school every year. For a week or two. Then I realized that whatever knowledge I wanted was still out of reach (I was one of those kids who read the school books during the first days of school, so I knew exactly what I would and wouldn’t be taught). I especially remember senior year in high school. “This is the year I will get to learn,” I thought. I was going to finally have a great teacher. (At least that’s what her previous students said.) On the first day of class, the teacher gave us an assignment: “Write an essay about what you expect to get from your senior year, and don’t give me any sycophantic nonsense about wanting to learn.” I just stared at her. This was the teacher who would finally teach me? As it turned out, no. Too many seniors wanted to take her class, and even though I had been one of the first to sign up, I was kicked out. (The only time my name was ever drawn out of a hat.)
Luckily, there were books. A lifetime of books. And just when I got to thinking I had a grip on some of what life had to teach, Jeff died, and the realization of how little I knew started all over again. If something as immense as grief had been hiding from me all my life, what else has been hidden? That question haunted me for many years, and in fact helped drive me through the worst of my pain. I thought perhaps something wonderful was waiting for me on the other side, but the only thing wonderful that happened was that I survived. And I gained a lot of knowledge about grief that has been of benefit to many people.
The sense of impending . . . something . . . has pretty much dissipated over the years since Jeff died, and I now let life offer me what it will.
Well, except for bombastic folks. Those I walk away from whenever I can.
Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.