In one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes, New Yorker and comedian Jerry Seinfeld voices frustration when the rental car clerk acknowledges Jerry had a car rental reservation, but informs him they didn’t have the car he reserved:
See, you know how to take the reservation, you just don’t know how to HOLD the reservation and that’s really the most important part of the reservation – the holding. Anybody can just take them.Jerry Seinfeld
The same can be said for knowledge and understanding. It’s so easy to google everything these days and gain a little knowledge on a wide breadth of topics, and that’s great! It’s even easier, unfortunately, to incorrectly apply concepts if all we get is a superficial explanation and run with it, without developing a deeper understanding. Worse still, we might skip the investigation entirely and just assume someone else’s use of the concept is correct simply because we agree with their point of view or conclusion.
In order to think for ourselves and truly form our own, well-informed judgments, we need to evaluate who and where we get our information from and apply Critical Thinking. An authority in one field might not be that reliable when speaking outside their area of expertise, and just because someone is confident doesn’t mean they are correct. There’s a space between knowledge and understanding, and we don’t all or always see that space quite so clearly.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect
Do you know a know-it-all? It’s that person who tends to think they know everything about a topic, or at least more than we do about it. This characteristic isn’t always as obnoxious as we would suspect and might just come across as confidence. But when we take a deeper look, we find this confidence could be unfounded. Here’s why:
🧠 The less we know, the less likely we are to understand how much we don’t know. The less skilled we are at something, the more we might overestimate our ability. This is a cognitive bias known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
🧠 And the more we know, the more we tend to realize how much we don’t know. This is the opposite of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Doesn’t sound so bad, right? Yet it’s the basis of what we commonly call the Imposter Syndrome when accompanied by self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy.
So how can we spot someone overestimating their knowledge or ability in an area? For starters, I have found these signs telling:
▪️They speak with such certainty on controversial matters or matters where knowledgable opinions differ.
▪️They don’t entertain different or opposing viewpoints.
▪️They like to get the last word in.
▪️They present what they know as a one-way lecture rather than a two-way learning experience.
▪️They base their knowledge on limited sources or only one source and encourage you to only trust or consult the same.
▪️They seem to assert a wide field of expertise rather than of interests they are exploring and sharing.
The internet puts the world at our fingertips and social media puts its voices in our ears constantly.
Echo chambers create the illusion that we know a lot, even though we actually aren’t hearing the full story.
So if we don’t consider carefully who we listen to, we might be led down the wrong path without even realizing it, perpetuating the cycle of overestimating what we know.
❓Do you undervalue your self-doubt but overrate the confidence of others?
👉 Take an audit of your sources of information. Do any of them seem to fall victim of the Dunning-Kruger effect? Do you 😉?
Reactions to Opposing Viewpoints
Relying on superficial knowledge, the mistaken overconfidence of another or a tendency to trust those we agree with are particularly problematic if we encounter an argument from an opposing viewpoint and dismiss it without proper consideration. Maybe we quickly characterize the argument as defective without analyzing the basis for the defect to determine if it’s actually defective! Lots of arguments fall prey to logical fallacies and deliberate manipulation tactics, but many valid arguments get too readily dismissed with accusations about someone’s motives, intent or even character – using logical fallacies themselves in the counter-arguments dismissing them! Looking for ways to discredit arguments we don’t like will shut down discussions and won’t deepen our understanding of an issue. Instead, let’s seek to understand an argument and determine if it’s sound first, and then decide if we agree with it. If we want to engage in constructive dialogue with those we disagree with and find solutions, we need to properly distinguish the invalid from the inconvenient arguments.
The only way to deepen our own understanding of an issue is by taking the time to investigate it for ourselves, particularly if we are emotionally invested in the topic. Let’s not just feel deeply, let’s think deeply too. Our hearts and our minds do their best work, together.