The transcript from this week’s, MiB: David Dunning on Metacognition, is below.
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VOICE-OVER: This is Masters in Business with Barry Ritholtz on Bloomberg Radio.
RITHOLTZ: This week on the podcast, I have an extra special guest and what can I tell you? His name is on the tip of your tongue, you know all about his research, you know all about the charts that the intranet created based on his research, you probably didn’t know that that wasn’t originally his work.
David Dunning, famous for the Dunning-Kruger effect, are Professor of psychology at Michigan. We talked about everything, his research, why people don’t know what they don’t know, how we could get better decision-making, just absolutely a fastening conversation. If you’re at all interested in human cognition and psychology in why we think we’re better at tests than we really are, then you are going to find this to be an absolutely fascinating discussion.
So with no further ado, my conversation with David Dunning.
VOICE-OVER: This is Masters in Business with Barry Ritholtz on Bloomberg Radio.
RITHOLTZ: My extra special guest this week is David Dunning, he is a Prof of psychology at the University of Michigan where he focuses on the psychology underlying human misbelieve. He is best known for his 1999 study with colleague Justin Kruger, Unskilled and Unaware of it, How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Self-Inflated Assessments. Dunning-Kruger showed that people who were the worst performers significantly overestimated how good they were. He is also the author of the book “Self Insight, Roadblocks and Detours on the Path to Knowing Thyself.”
David Dunning, welcome to Bloomberg.
DAVID DUNNING, PROFESSOR OF PSYCHOLOGY, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN: It’s a pleasure to be here.
RITHOLTZ: I have been looking forward to this conversation for a long time, I am a giant fan of your work and I have to start with a really simple question, what’s the origin of the study? What led you to a thesis that we’re really bad at self-evaluation?
DUNNING: Well, if you’re an academic, you meet up with many students, and you meet up with many colleagues who say outrageous things. And you just have to wonder don’t they know what they are saying is, let me say this diplomatically, odd, sub-optimal, and over the years, I just was intrigued with finding out whether or not people knew when they were saying things that were outrageous, were obviously wrong on the face of it.
And so one day Justin Kruger walked into my office, said he wanted to do a study with me, and I said well I have this high risk reward study to do, and it has to do with a question I have often wondered about.
And so we did the first original series of studies and were astonished at how little people who don’t know, didn’t know about how little they knew.
RITHOLTZ: So I was on the impression that most academics have a thesis and there’s some data supporting it and when they go out and test it, they have a little confirmation bias and they see what they expected to see, you’re saying you guys are just shocked by the results of the study?
DUNNING: That’s right. I mean we expected it to work because if you think about the logic of it, it has to work. The question was one of magnitude. When a student was failing the course for example or given a pop quiz on grammar, did they have some inkling that they were performing really poorly? And the answer was maybe a little but not much and they are missing their true performance level by a mile.
RITHOLTZ: By a mile, so how much of this that really raises am a number of questions. So I love the phrase metacognition, the ability to self evaluate your skill set and your findings essentially find that this is highly correlated with an underlying skill. And whenever I try and explain this to a layperson, it’s pro golfers know how good they are and where the weaknesses in their games are, amateurs have no idea that there are not remotely as good as they think they are, is that a fair…
DUNNING: Oh, e I’m a perfect example of this, so when I go out and golf, I often end up in the rough when I drive the ball, and then I see the ball go in the rough, and then I go out to find it later on and I’m always overguessing how far the ball went in the rough by about 20 to 30 yards.
And I know this, yet every time I drive the ball into the rough, I’m looking in the wrong place. So yes, I mean, amateur golfers don’t know such terms as course management for example. There’s a number of concepts, a number of ideas, they just simply don’t have available to them.
And as a consequence, they think they are doing the best possible job when in fact, there’s a whole realm of competencies they don’t know about.
RITHOLTZ: They’re just wholly unaware of what they don’t know about.
DUNNING: That’s right.
RITHOLTZ: So you begin the 1999 paper with a amusing anecdote, tell us about the Pittsburgh bank robber, McArthur Wheeler.
DUNNING: Well, McArthur Wheeler was a aspirant our bank robber who decided to go out and rob but needed a disguise and he had heard that if you rub your face with lemon juice, it renders the face fuzzy or even invisible to bank security cameras. And so he actually did test it out, he actually rubbed his face with lemon juice at home, pointed a Polaroid camera or whatever at his face, and then he wasn’t there, he misaimed the camera.
RITHOLTZ: (LAUGHTER) He thought he was invisible.
DUNNING: He thought he was invisible, he went out with no actual disguise, robbed two Pittsburgh area banks during the daytime, was immediately caught on security cameras, those tapes were broadcasted on the news.
And he himself was caught before the 11 o’clock news hour. And he was incredulous because as he said, I wore the juice, I wore the juice. And so thus ended his career, but these are the sorts of mistakes we make all the time, we think we have a strategy that’s going to work and to our surprise, the world has a different lesson for us to learn.
RITHOLTZ: So metacognition sometimes looks a little bit like overconfidence, how similar or different are the two?
DUNNING: Well, metacognition is a number of things, a number of skills that underlie being able to evaluate your judgements, evaluate your decisions, so often it’s overconfidence, usually it’s overconfidence, it can be underconfidence, thinking you can’t do something that you can do. It might be overconfidence or underconfidence but does your confidence rise and fall with the accuracy of your judgements.
So is there a relationship whether or not your confidence is a speedometer that overstates or understates how well you are doing. But there — it also is knowing how to make a judgement, knowing when to stop thinking and start acting, so knowing when there is a doubt that you really should be following up on.
So overconfidence is a phenomenon I think that lies within a hall family of skills that you can call metacognition which is basically skill in knowing how to evaluate your thinking and control your thinking.
RITHOLTZ: Quite fascinating.
Let’s talk a little bit about your 1999 paper “Unskilled and Unaware Of It” this blew up some of the most famous psychology papers ever, when you and Kruger were writing this, did you have any idea that it was going to be this explosive?
DUNNING: No, because I thought it was going to have trouble being published because it actually is an unusual piece of work given the usual structure of a paper in the Journal we ultimately submitted to.
So the fact that it blew up was a big surprise, the fact that it got published was also a big surprise, I was just very, very happy. Because internally, I thought it was a good piece of work, but I didn’t know if the world was going to agree.
RITHOLTZ: So I have seen your work misstated in a variety of ways, I’m sure you have also, the one that I notice all the time is stupid people don’t know they’re stupid, and while that could very well be true, that is not the basic theme of your research, is it?
DUNNING: No, we were very clear from the outset that the Dunning-Kruger effect is something that can visit anybody at any time, that is each of us has our own pockets of incompetence.
And we just didn’t know when we wander into them.
So often, the one mistake that people make is thinking that the Dunning-Kruger effect is about them, those as you say stupid people out there, and the paper really was really about us and ourselves and being vigilant about the fact that sometimes we are going to wander into our own little personal disasters not knowing that a disaster is imminent.
RITHOLTZ: So people trying to explain Dunning-Kruger themselves are suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect?
DUNNING: Oh in many different ways. So if you give me a moment.
DUNNING: Two different ways that people get it wrong, first is to think about other people and it’s not about me. The second is thinking that incompetent people are the most confident people in the room, that’s not necessarily true.
Usually, that shows up in our data, but they are usually less confident than the really competent people but not that much. But the real thing that I think is fascinating and this has only happened the past five years is that if you Google images of the Dunning-Kruger effect…
RITHOLTZ: The charts.
DUNNING: The charts, well those aren’t our charts.
RITHOLTZ: So you didn’t do Mt Stupid or the Valley of Despair as they have been called?
DUNNING: No, we did not.
It has nothing to do whatsoever with our 99 paper or anything that we did subsequently and two notes of that, first I think it’s delicious that a lot of people think of the Dunning-Kruger effect, they are talking about the Dunning-Kruger effect, they are videotaping talks on the Dunning-Kruger effect and what they are talking about is not the Dunning-Kruger effect.
They are suffering the effect..
DUNNING: About the effect itself. That’s the first. The second note though is given the situation, we did face a dilemma in the lab, how do we fix this? How do we correct this?
And so this is true in part, we decided the most efficient ethical thing to do was to steal the idea from the internet…
DUNNING: Because the other problem with the idea that it not be the Dunning Kruger effect is that it’s more interesting to the Dunning-Kruger effect, so — but we stole the idea, tested it, and it turned up that my own stupid valley of despair, a plateau of enlightenment…
DUNNING: Time course that people see, that — we pretty much get that pattern as we pace people through a completely novel task. So the internet is right.
RITHOLTZ: So in other words, and I’m intrigued and fascinated by this, you never put out a chart, I always assumed that that chart had come from your data because what are people just drawing lines and making it up? And PS, it intuitively looks right, you would assume hey, so I play tennis I only started recently less than 10 years ago and when you start out and you start and hit the ball, and you feel like you have some control and you have some skill, and then you’re working your way up that Mt Stupid. And then when you actually start to develop some skill not that I really have but I’m better than I was five years ago, you realize, oh, I didn’t know what the heck I was doing, just a ball and getting lucky when it catches the tape. And all of a sudden, you realize, I’m ay down this.
And then you continue playing, you get a little better and a little better, I don’t know if this is all rationalization but it intuitively seems to make sense.
DUNNING: Well, not only does it intuitively makes sense, it turns out to make sense and in the 201 paper with Carmen Sanchez, we were able to demonstrate that.
Basically what happens is when you start a task and what we did is we had people — we put people in a post-apocalyptic world where they had to, without supervision but with feedback diagnose who was infected with the zombie disease. Hoping that that wasn’t something that people have experience with, and basically what happens is if you’re a beginner, you start out way at the beginning being appropriate cautious, you really don’t know what you are doing and you know it.
But the problem is that you have a few successes, they are probably due to luck more than skill, and then you think you have that is people arrive at a theory based on data which is far too early, far too sparse and far too unreliable, but I think I got it.
And then the next phase they have to go through is realizing, that theory really doesn’t work.
And so we’ve been able to track that and just show and in a number of studies.
So the internet is right, I’m very pleased with its intuition on this one. But it is a little bit odd to get credit for an insight that we never had but we are very happy to steal.
RITHOLTZ: So essentially, when you run the data showing the correlation between skill and ability to self-evaluate, you end up with a chart that looks – in this 2018 paper, looks remarkably similar to all the various pop psychology Mt Stupid charts that are out there?
DUNNING: Yes, as you gain experience, you unfortunately start with a burst of overconfidence, I got this, no, you don’t.
And then experience basically is correcting your flattering impression of your skill as time goes on. Until at some point, learning stops because of experiences not new or learning does experience human limits but that is the pattern.
By the way, if anybody flies an airplane, they perfectly understand this pattern, it’s not beginning pilots who are the most dangerous, it’s pilots with let’s say 600 or 800 flight hours, they have enough experience to think that they’ve got this and they enter into what is referred to as the killing zone where accidents are most likely to happen.
RITHOLTZ: All of this raises the question of how much of an independent skill is self assessment or asked differently, do you have to be skilled at the underlying task at hand in order to have any skillset in evaluating it or can they be learned independently.
DUNNING: Well, I think the research actually has to look at this a little bit more.
One of the things that we know and we followed up on this, is there is direct skill in doing the task, direct skill in doing the judgment and there is potentially another layer which is evaluating the judgment. And the question is how much does that second judgment rely on knowledge in the first?
And from our data, it’s clear that accuracy in knowing whether or not you are right is very correlated with accuracy in the first place. Are you really good with the skill, can you reach an accurate judgment?
Now it’s not true in everything, it’s not true in golf, I know just how bad my golf game is because I tend to score my rounds no in terms of shots but in terms of how many balls did I lose.
DUNNING: And that is a metric that gives me a pretty good indication of how bad I am.
RITHOLTZ: So you could self-evaluate without even seeing your actual scorecard score, you just count the lost ball?
DUNNING: You know, that is the real thing.
But there are a lot of skills thought that — accuracy of the metacognitive task, judging whether or not you are right, that skill really depends on your skill in the first task which is getting the right judgment.
And for example, financial forecasting would be an example…
RITHOLTZ: Well, that’s easy picking, saying – that’s fish in a barrel.
DUNNING: From what I hear, and given a good lecture…
RITHOLTZ: Oh really?
DUNNING: In my world, well, you do have to judge internally, am I really giving a good lecture or not, you can’t really depend on the audience, audiences can be good, audiences can be bad, and so — but the choices you make, well, they depend on skill. But your evaluation of those choices probably depend on how good you are and knowing what a good lecture looks like — what a good lecture sounds like.
RITHOLTZ: So let’s talk a little bit about academic psychology and your background and what it’s like teaching these days, you got your Ph.D at Stanford at a time when I guess you could still say it today, it was the Mecca of psychology, wasn’t it?
DUNNING: Yes, it was.
RITHOLTZ: So who did you study under?
DUNNING: I studied under Lee Ross primarily. I was also mentored a little bit by Phoebe Ellsworth who for the last few years have been a colleague of at Michigan. But it really was a village, everybody among the faculty was on the same page so to speak.
And so I’d have to say that entire faculty raised me as it did a lot of other people.
RITHOLTZ: Quite interesting. So you’ve been studying psychology for a long time, have you found in the rest of your life’s decision making that you become more rationale and a better decision maker.
DUNNING: I think that life has provided those lessons, yes, and I’ve certainly become more experienced in my work and so I bear the scars, I bear the wounds, but I do think that I am a little wiser because of it.
I – one of the things or one of the principles I often live by is are you vaguely embarrassed by something you did five or ten years ago, and so I will read things that I did five or ten years ago and I find myself – I shouldn’t have done it that way, and I take that as a pleasant emotion, it’s just I’m in a different place now than I was back then.
RITHOLTZ: So I go through something similar and every five years, I’m mortified of the five year younger version of me. But I never took the next step to say well, I guess this means I’m growing, I was always been just so horrified at the younger version, I didn’t make the leap that I guess this means that progress — so let’s talk a little bit about things like that. About learning and norms. You write a lot about social norms, why do you find this topic so fascinating?
DUNNING: Well, social norms, I think is the surprisingly understudied thing in the behavioral sciences, there are people who study it and social norms are an incredible guide both to successful human behavior, not only for individuals but for society, but also at times, the source of the greatest calamity, if you will.
RITHOLTZ: Why is it? Give us some examples to better understand that.
DUNNING: Well, I think that the clearest example that comes to mind is let’s take norms of politeness and let’s talk about the fact that the FAA has recorded, I believe I’m not sure of the numbers, 16 times where the crew in the cockpit of an airliner knew that the pilot was doing something wrong and they were going to crash into a mountain.
The pilot didn’t seem to know but they are polite and so they indirectly keep telling the pilot you better change things up, but they don’t say it directly, and if you listen to the black box recordings, those planes crash.
So there’s a norm that we try not to embarrass the other person, it’s a very important norm for day to day life, imagine day to day life without it, but it can go to extremes in terms of not telling pilots that they are on the course to disaster or not telling doctors that they are operating on the wrong leg, for example.
RITHOLTZ: Really? So to me, that sounds a lot like just deferral to authority, how much of that is just being a good little soldier and how much of that is social norms or are they, you know, two sides of the same coin?
DUNNING: Well, they are two sides of the same coin, I mean we defer to authority, but we also defer to each other and by and large, that is there because it has an overall positive impact but it can go too far.
So and the question becomes knowing when it is going too far and being able to break the norm and what I find interesting though is that norms permeate our life, for example, there are norms that we know that we don’t know that we know. So for example, just give you one example, we know it’s a teenage ninja turtles as opposed to — or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as opposed to Mutant Ninja Teenage Turtles, that’s the thought…
DUNNING: There is a rule in how you stack up adjectives before a noun. And we all follow that rule and we know when that rule is being violated but we don’t know that rule.
But there are a lot of rules in our language, a lot of rules in our behavior, a lot of rules in our etiquette that we are following but we are so skilled at them we don’t know that we are following them.
RITHOLTZ: We just internalize and then we we’re not aware of them.
DUNNING: That’s right.
RITHOLTZ: So how does that come back – how do you deal with that when you have a deferring co-pilot and the pilot is about to hit a mountain?
DUNNING: You have to train people to have a different norm.
RITHOLTZ: So you just completely break the underlying norm and replace it with something for safety purposes.
DUNNING: That’s right. Either you invent a procedure or you invent a piece of equipment that is going to tell the pilot that they are in error. Or a piece of equipment that prevents the error in the first place.
So for example, in terms of wrong side surgery, and this is a thing, that can happen but it happens much less than it used to, basically because the medical profession has instituted procedures to just avoid the error, another norm if you will. So I remember when I had eye surgery, having a pleasant conversation with the eye surgeon beforehand and at the end, he said, oh, by the way, it’s your right eye we are doing today, right?
DUNNING: And I go, yes, well, he knew it was the right eye but he had to check and then he signed the forehead above the right eye…
RITHOLTZ: Over the eye.
DUNNING: Just to make sure that – to avoid wrong side surgery.
RITHOLTZ: So I’m just horrified at the thought that there is a roomful of surgeons and someone starts sawing off the wrong leg and nobody says anything.
DUNNING: Well, yes, because it is the case that people may be uncertain, they don’t know how to intervene.
RITHOLTZ: Hey, that’s the wrong leg.
Not to be funny, but I’m – it’s just terrifying.
DUNNING: Oh I know. But in some instances, it goes all the way back to the Milgram experiment.
DUNNING: And the key about the Milgram experiment is that people gleefully went all the way to shock another person and basically committed voluntary manslaughter. That’s what the Milgram experiment was.
DUNNING: They didn’t know how to get out.
And what I’m intrigued by – the film of the Milgram experiment, for example, is that the second thing subjects tend to say when they are trying to get out is they say “you can have your 450 back” that is the social contract is a norm, it has to be followed, and they have to abrogate that contract before they can stop doing involuntary manslaughter essentially.
But the real thing about that experience is that people don’t know how to dissent, it’s not something we are necessarily well trained in.
We are trained in cooperating, we are trained in deferring that is not true all the time, but if you start looking around in life to realize we do it a lot more than we think we are doing it but we are not really well trained in the psychology of dissent or the psychology of objection, that is just not something we do.
RITHOLTZ: So how much of this is institutional, schools, family whatever, and how much of this is biological, hey, we are social primates and that’s how we have evolved?
DUNNING: I think it has to be both.
That is both people and institutions evolved to create norms that do the best to make the day pleasant, survivable, to make the day efficient. And it does have – norms do have that effect. Imagine a world in which we didn’t have norms.
RITHOLTZ: “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
RITHOLTZ: That is a whole show about what happens if one person decides he is not going to pay attention to any of the social norms.
DUNNING: That is absolutely right and it’s incredibly entertaining but I wouldn’t want to live in it.
RITHOLTZ: It’s sometimes difficult to watch, it just goes to show you how ingrained those norms are, the not – not to become a television critic, but the first couple of seasons of that show, I remember having to posit and just take a break because it was so cringeworthy and so difficult and uncomfortable to watch even as it was hilarious. I never really thought of it in terms of norms, you just think of him as a cranky difficult person.
But I guess, it’s all norms.
DUNNING: Well, it is all norms, and there is a biology to it, it’s that we are primed to have anxiety mechanisms that are really ready to go when we are in a situation of norm violations.
So it’s interesting that you are watching something on television, separated – and you know it’s fictional and yet you are feeling real emotion. And the emotion is exactly the emotion you feel around norm violations, the anxiety, it’s nervousness, it’s tension. That’s past – and potentially speaks to how powerful that mechanism is within the body, within the species and why norms hopefully work in society.
RITHOLTZ: So before we get off this topic, I have to circle back to the Milgram experiment, and an unrelated the marshmallow experiment as well, all these things that – listen, I’ve been out of college for 100 years, but the things that I read through in college level psychology, I keep reading about different studies that they are going back and saying, well maybe there was a false bias built into the way the test was done and when we try and recreate this, we are not getting the same level of effect.
Is the Milgram experiment still the operative obedience to authority in the world of psychology or has that been rolled back a little bit?
DUNNING: I think people are reevaluating it as we speak. I know there has been some journalism that has been antagonistic to the Milgram effect so I’ve actually gone back because I teach this stuff in this specific case, and read the journalism and going back to the original study
And I think the Milgram experiment itself is still solid, but you do have to go back in a case by case basis because it is the case that a lot of classic work is being reevaluated. And you really do have to go back and review the original work and you have to review the replications or review the rethinking if you will.
And case by case, there are different issues that you really have to think through. So in the case of – another group experiment I think that saw it, in the case of the marshmallow experiment, clearly the headline is still the same, kids who wait a long time when they are young have different life outcomes when they are teenagers and so on. The argument is so, what exactly does that represent, does that represent personality or does that represent social class? Does that represent whether or not what environment you grew up in.
So the issues change depending on which specific topic you are reviewing.
RITHOLTZ: Quite interesting.
You write about a lot of things beyond metacognition, you cover a whole bunch of other areas, we haven’t really talked about your book which is a couple years old already, “Self-Insight, Roadblocks and Detours on the Path to Knowing Thyself” there was something in the book that just cracked me up which you don’t normally get in an academic book.
You’re special, and it turns out no, most of us are not special, and we are wholly unaware of that, we’ve been told most of our lives how special we are. Tell us why so few of us are actually special.
DUNNING: Well the problem is that well if you look at the complete person, each of us is special.
DUNNING: But if you put us in any situation or any circumstance, we’re mostly going to act like everybody else.
RITHOLTZ: Right. Most of us are average.
DUNNING: Most of us are average, most of us are typical, I mean that you in any specific circumstance, so if you aggregate all that, all of who we are together, we yes, we are special but when it comes to specific situations, no, we’re not special.
And so what that does leave people with though is a people do have this idea that they are unique, that they are exceptional …
RITHOLTZ: True, true.
DUNNING: And as a consequence, they can’t, yes…
RITHOLTZ: I’m just doing the checkboxes, yes, right, of course.
DUNNING: Oh, absolutely. And so what that means is that it turns out people have a good rough understanding of human nature. I’m not going to say it’s perfect, that’s my work, but they do have a good understanding of human nature.
The mistake they make is that they think they are stand outside that human nature, that they are different.
RITHOLTZ: That they are special.
DUNNING: That they are special. So for example, we’ve done studies, we ask people there’s going to be a food drive at your campus, let’ say in a month, will you contribute to it? And what percentage of people will contribute to it?
They are pretty good at nailing the percentage of people on their campus who are going to contribute to the food drive, they are rather good – they sort of figured what the situation is, they can think about their experience, they come up with a good answer, and that answer turns out to be right.
But when we ask them okay what are you going to do, are you going to contribute? They way overestimate how much they are going to do the right thing, they are going to do the good thing or they are going to do the social thing. Basically, because they understand how the situation and external forces will prompt people to donate and to not donate, but they think they stand outside those forces.
For them, it is just simply decision, do I want to donate or not? And a lot of people want to donate so yes, I’m going to donate. And it turns out when the time comes, no, they are subject to all these external forces that push against donation as well as push for donation.
So they turn out to be typical just like anybody else.
RITHOLTZ: So let’s talk about a related topic. Again from the book about moral fortitude, you tell the story about being on radio show around the time of the Clinton impeachment, I almost said Trump impeachment but this is — this is 20 plus years ago. The radio host goes off on a tirade about infidelity and the moral and inferiority and failings of other people and you had at your fingertips a bunch of research about how everybody’s expectations of their own moral superiority sort of fit into the Dunning-Kruger framework, we think we’re much better at that than we really are.
DUNNING: That’s true, that is because when you move to the moral domain, the ethical domain, people definitely have this holier than thou attitude, I won’t do it but other people will do it if it’s bad, for example.
I would never cheat on my beloved but other people of course, are going to cheat on their beloved. And it turns out we did a number of studies not on infidelity but rather will you vote, will you be charitable, will you obey traffic laws for example, and it turns other people wildly overestimate themselves. And that is they overestimate how moral ethical and good they will be relative to what they think about other people.
And they also overestimate how moral and good they are going to be relative to the reality when we actually test either them or the equivalent group of people. So the question for us is people tend to believe they are morally superior, are they making a mistake about other people, are they being too cynical about other people? Are they being too optimistic about their self?
DUNNING: It turns out to be, to my surprise and this is completely the reverse of what I expected, people are wrong about themselves exactly because they think they are special.
RITHOLTZ: So they are not being cynical about the rest of humanity, they pretty much have them nailed, they just think they’re better than everybody.
DUNNING: That’s right, with maybe one or two glaring exceptions of people are surprisingly accurate about the general rate, about human nature in general, how other people to be buffeted around by external forces, they just think they are for themselves, are exempt from those forces.
RITHOLTZ: All right. So we have metacognition issues when we’re trying to do a specific task that requires skills, there is a similar issue with our own sense of self and ethics and moral turpitude. What other areas are subject to the Dunning Kruger effect?
DUNNING: Well, I don’t know what else there might be ….
Is that everything? Is it thoughts and action and everything else is left over?
DUNNING: No, there’s also the future.
DUNNING: If you think, so people are also overoptimistic about their prospects if you will.
RITHOLTZ: Really? That’s interesting.
DUNNING: Oh absolutely. That is people really underestimate how long it would take to complete projects, they underestimate how long it is going to take for their business to be profitable, they when they are thinking about the future, they tend to base their planning and their ideas on the most optimistic scenario rather than the most pessimistic scenario or maybe even the most realistic scenario.
So there are things we missed not only in terms of competence and character but also about our prospects.
RITHOLTZ: So how do we explain that? I can imagine, I could concoct a lovely narrative tale as to why having an optimism bias is good for the species even if you’re the guy from Cave 73 that doesn’t come back from the mammoth hunt, everybody else has fur and meat for the winter or is this just a crazy narrative story, or is there some evolutionary component to it?
DUNNING: Well, there is an evolutionary component to it, an adaptability component to it but it’s complicated. So the fact that people commit to things far too optimistically really does create those things. I mean books are written, the businesses are developed, movies are made even though the people who serve them out did far more work and are now far more depressed and tired than they ever imagined they would be at the end of those projects.
But if they had only been prepared for how long it was going to take, they probably would have come up with a better project, a better business and a better book, so things get made, but people will fail or they won’t produce really what they are capable of producing.
RITHOLTZ: Very interesting, all of which leads to one big question which is why do we seem to make these same errors in judgment. Is it something about the way we learn, is it something about our fragile egos, why we as a species are we unable to get by some of these fairly obvious flaws?
DUNNING: Well I think there are two things involved, one comes from holier than though work which is we’re overweighting our intentions, and the power of our personality to produce things, that that’s part of what’s going on when we …
RITHOLTZ: Repeat that, the power of our personality to produce things…
DUNNING: The power of our — because well, I will do this because I want to do this, and I — that is part of that is something that we overestimate. The other is the confidence angle which is we really don’t know what we don’t know.
RITHOLTZ: And with Rumsfeld unknown unknowns, is that what that is..
DUNNING: Well, the world is filled with unknown unknowns, and we don’t know.
RITHOLTZ: Well, not only do we not know them, we don’t pay to the fact we don’t know them. I think too many people out there, the idea of unknown unknowns is still a novel concept, but it is something that the …
DUNNING: They just don’t know.
RITHOLTZ: They don’t know what they don’t know, but there is a lot of work showing that people just don’t pay attention to what they don’t know when they are making predictions or when they are planning things out. They don’t sit back and ask okay what is it that I don’t know here, what is still open? What are the possibilities that I’m not considering not only that, am I considering the fact that there are unknown unknowns and I should be planning for that possibility.
RITHOLTZ: So you mentioned earlier planning, I saw something kind of interesting around January 19 of this year, that’s the date when most people’s New Year’s resolutions fail. Does that sound remotely plausible or is that just something else from the Internet?
DUNNING: I’m surprised that our resolutions last that long …
RITHOLTZ: No kidding? So why that raises the next question, if we have all the best intentions and we want to fill in the blanks, stop smoking, exercise, lose weight whatever it is, why is it that when we make these sorts of plans, all as a group on the same date every year, I can imagine why would that not work?
DUNNING: Well it doesn’t work because the world is waiting for us in some sense, it doesn’t — it is unknown unknowns and it does have external forces that are going to defeat us. And what we tend to do is we tend to focus on our plans, what am I going to do? What are my intentions, what are the steps that I’m going to take?
What we really should do is interview people who have tried to do this before and find out what the real difficulties are. There are going to be many difficulties that we haven’t anticipated, there are going to be many difficulties that we don’t know about and not only that, there are probably tricks, strategies, and tactics, plans we can make that we wouldn’t think of but someone else has thought of them and they actually work.
So we actually consulted with people who traveled the road before us, we would do a much better job I think anticipating the difficulties we have lying ahead as well as being better armed with strategies that have a better chance of success.
RITHOLTZ: All right so let me push back on that a little bit, the diet industry is like the $26 billion sector of the economy and they all have the magic bullet, and yet everybody in this country seems to be increasingly overweight, diabetes is a problem, there all these weight -related issues. If we could speak to other people and have that conversation who have been successful, how does that work given the vast numbers of people who need assistance losing weight?
DUNNING: That’s a very good question, by the way, evolutionarily, this is a very novel tasks for …
RITHOLTZ: Because you — having extra weight is a good survival thing if you have a shorter lifespan, we now live beyond that adaptation, I don’t think cholesterol was a big problem 10,000 years ago.
DUNNING: I think that’s right, and it probably wasn’t a big problem even up to a hundred years ago and getting calories was the …
DUNNING: Up to very, very recently.
RITHOLTZ: So as a species, we are dealing with a very novel task in trying to lose weight. I think that there are some common sense things that people can do but one thing they can do is reset two things, the first is what is a realistic outcome in terms of losing weight. But also having more realism in terms of how much effort and how much time is good take to get there for example.
DUNNING: And also begin to think things more in terms of long-term as opposed to the short-term, I mean a lot of people think, how do I lose weight this month, the question is how do you keep the weight how do you lose weight and then keep the weight off for years and years?
DUNNING: But I think as certainly as a society, I think it’s taking a while for the collective wisdom to form because it does turn out to be a particularly difficult task.
RITHOLTZ: So might — I go for an annual physical every year my GP is also a cardiologist and he’s one of these old-school doctors when they are done with the tests, you going to their office, you sit down and you have a conversation and we go through everything, is all good, and he says you have any questions for me and like yeah I’d like to drop a few pounds, what do you suggest?
And he very conspiratorially looked over each shoulder and then leaned forward and whispered to me, “eat less food” and I’m like doc, you know, there is a giant industry whose whole purpose is to not share that advice but it turns out to be good advice.
RITHOLTZ: So eating a little less food, you can lose some weight, it’s quite fascinating and yet it’s hard to do than you would imagine – than I — certainly than I imagine.
DUNNING: I think that is right, well, certainly in the United States, it is harder, one of the things that I think is interesting, now this isn’t psychology, this is just my personal life is every so often I spent time in Germany and I always lose weight in Germany without even trying.
RITHOLTZ: Now why is that?
Do you not like bratwurst and beer?
DUNNING: Well, German cuisine is more than that, not much more by the way, but it is more than that.
DUNNING: It’s a lot of schnitzel when you don’t know anything else.
RITHOLTZ: (LAUGHTER) That’s a safe choice.
DUNNING: It’s a safe choice, but I think most well in Germany, the portions are small …
RITHOLTZ: In the rest of the world, the portions are small.
DUNNING: That’s exactly right and that’s an issue, most of the calories in the meal are conveyed by the sauce and inevitable beer you are going to drink …
DUNNING: Or the wine you are going to drink.
But there’s also just much more walking.
RITHOLTZ: Oh really?
DUNNING: And bike riding.
RITHOLTZ: Yes, but can you walk off that many calories? I mean if you’re Michael Phelps, sure, but for the rest of us, we are not putting in three hours a day of sweating.
DUNNING: Well, that is certainly true but if you just walk and walking is one physical act our species was built for…
DUNNING: It does bring things under control, this isn’t scientific I just know my brother lost quite a bit of weight by buying a beagle and then taking the beagle out for 8 to 9 mile walks every weekend. And that worked for him and so there are strategies that work, maybe different strategies work for different people, but the key is often what we will tend to do is we will tend to try to solve the question ourselves using only ourselves as the source of knowledge.
It’s good to consult, it’s good to find out who’s had a success, it’s good to confer with other people that can only broaden the knowledge and wisdom that we have at our disposal whenever we have a difficult task like losing weight.
RITHOLTZ: I got to ask why are you in Germany each year?
DUNNING: I’ve a collaboration there in Cologne with a couple researchers doing work on trust, this is where the interest in norms comes in, and that’s been going on for many, many years and there have been many, many meals during the course of that collaboration and much weight has been lost when I’m over there.
RITHOLTZ: Interesting. I have a bunch more questions including some on trust, can you stick around a few more minutes?
RITHOLTZ: We have been speaking with David Dunning, Professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.
If you enjoy this conversation, well, be sure and stick around to check out our podcast extras where we keep the tape rolling and continue discussing all things psychology related. You can find that on Apple iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher wherever your finer podcasts are sold.
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Professor Dunning, I don’t even know what to call you, David, thank you so much for doing this. I have been looking forward to this for a long time and there — I have all these formal questions and we kind of work our way through that, that’s my crutch, but I have all these other questions that I’ve been dying to ask you.
And the big one was on that chart which you surprised me with I didn’t realize you guys had — hadn’t created that and that only in 2018 did you end up validating what the Internet intuited about your work.
So that’s fascinating, the thing that intrigues me so much, why, why is it that the way we learn is to start from zero, assume we have knowledge that we don’t, and then build on that and all of a sudden, there’s an insight and we realized awe are idiots, we don’t know half of what we’re talking about, and from from that broken down position are we able to rebuild some true confidence relative to skills versus the false confidence.
And so the big question is what is it about the species that has this inherent in it because it seems to cause widespread problems across society?
DUNNING: Well, two things, let me start off with the things we don’t pay attention to. We don’t pay attention to what we don’t know, we’ve already talked about that, but we also don’t pay attention to luck and its potential role …
DUNNING: To your success and failure, for example — we set that aside. Where this comes from in terms of we think we got this is that actually in many situations we start from zero and we do get it. That is every situation we face in one way or another, this interview for example is a new situation, it doesn’t exactly replicate the past.
RITHOLTZ: It’s unique.
DUNNING: It’s unique. And our brain is able to fetch a lot of little elements of knowledge from everywhere to figure okay what is this, how do I deal with this? What’s the next move? The genius of our brain is taking something novel and coming to an understanding of it.
RITHOLTZ: This is similar enough to that that I could use what I learned last time to work my way through.
DUNNING: That’s right and that’s essential for the species to survive. But sometimes even that skill is going to derail, it’s going to lead us to something that’s absolutely wrong but look exactly right, that is it will look like all those experiences where it was novel, we figured out what was going on, we figured out what we should do.
So for example, if you have a friend who’s drowning in the lake, you’re on the dock, and next and you don’t have like preservers but you do have a basketball and a bowling ball next to you, you know which ball to throw them…
DUNNING: Depending on you know…
RITHOLTZ: How much you like them.
DUNNING: How much you like them, exactly. We can innovate, that’s what we’re built to do, the problem is those innovations may become misapplied and that’s where the Dunning-Kruger effect comes in.
We have worked from his genius, we worked from this amazing database we have in our squishy little organic driver and — or a server in our head, and — but we have misapplied and we don’t realize that until well, after the disaster has happened.
RITHOLTZ: So we’re not aware of what we don’t know, our blind spots, we underestimate luck and I I’ve seen some writings that say when we’re successful, we credit it to our own skill, and when were unsuccessful, we credit it to bad luck, and not only that but with the – we do the opposite with other people. When they are successful, well, they got lucky and when the run successful it’s because they’re not very skillful.
That sort of back to the I’m special thing, that seems to permeate everything, doesn’t it?
DUNNING: It does, and that is exactly the I am special thing. But one thing I should mention though is the I’m special thing though might be constrained in other parts of the globe. That is …
RITHOLTZ: So it could be cultural.
DUNNING: There is a cultural element, no doubt, we’ve actually studied that, but this is something that attaches much more to people with a heritage, it’s American, it’s Canadian, it’s Western European, if you’re coming from an Eastern culture, you don’t do as much or if at all this overestimation of sself, for this I’m special stuff that you find Americans do all the time.
RITHOLTZ: And now I would imagine in China where there’s a billion plus people, it’s harder to just assume you are special or is that not even relevant. It’s cultural more than anything?
DUNNING: Well, it’s cultural in the sense of is the emphasis on me and what I can do and what can I impose upon the world, that’s very Western, as opposed to how do I fit in, how do I harmonize, how do I fill the role that I’ve been assigned or the role that I fall into and that is much more Eastern.
And you are just going to have a very different way of thinking if you’re in the first culture as opposed to the second culture.
RITHOLTZ: So you — earlier, we were talking about trust and I’m kind of intrigued by that. There’s a question that is, I guess, sort of obvious, why do we trust strangers? Why are we so susceptible to being defrauded or scammed? It seems that every other day I’m reading about some different Ponzi scheme or some different insanity where people trusted someone they clearly shouldn’t and it got them into a lot of trouble
DUNNING: I think that comes from the fact – we talked about norms earlier.
DUNNING: And one of the norms we have that goes right down deep in the heart of what it means to have a conversation is we assume what the other person is telling us is true unless there’s evidence otherwise, but the assumption is truth. That’s presumption that we have and that makes sense.
Imagine a world in which I – we all just trusted what the other person is telling us. Well, there would not be much coordination going on in the world. So if you ask for directions, a person tells you how to get to the Bloomberg building, you assume they’re telling you the truth. Because imagine if he said, “No, I don’t trust them.” What are you going to do?
DUNNING: So …
RITHOLTZ: Why would you even ask them in the first place?
DUNNING: Exactly. So there is a normal presumption of truth that serves us well for the most part in life. But if the other person is malevolent, if the other person is incompetent, that presumption is going to lead to potential folly, for example. But we do have actually ongoing work looking at people’s ability to tell true science headlines from fake science headlines.
And what’s interesting to us is that the error people tend to make is they tend to believe fake things are true. They make that error much more they do the reverse error, thinking the true thing is fake. So, in general, people are gullible …
DUNNING: … so to speak. What’s interesting, though, is you ask people, this is one of the rare areas for people – they don’t say, “Well, I have no bias. I see it the way it is.” Rather what they say they do have a bias, they’re too skeptical.
They’re too wary of information out there. They’re more likely to just distrust a true thing than to accept a false thing. So this is the first time I’ve ever seen some – a bias with a superpower. That is most people are gullible, but they actually believe they have the reverse bias that they’re too skeptical.
But it all comes from a norm, if you will, that for the most part in life and day-to-day living, it works. It makes life eminently easier if we assume what the other person is telling us is true, because at the very least what the other person is telling us is sincere.
RITHOLTZ: Right. That’s quite interesting. I’m surprised in this era of misinformation and all of the false memes all over the internet, that people still think their problem is, “Well, I’m too skeptical. It’s clear at least from the popular culture that we too easily believe things we shouldn’t.
DUNNING: Oh, that’s absolutely right. And I have to admit, we don’t exactly have a handle on why do people think the reverse, that’s fascinating. And once again, it’s one of those findings we get where I look at it and I go, “I have no idea why this is happening.” That happens far too often in my work.
RITHOLTZ: So what about nudges? Is there a way to – referencing Sunstein and Thaler’s work on small little systemic ways to steer people in the right direction. Is that something that can help people make better decisions or are we just left to our own faulty devices?
DUNNING: Well, our devices are always going to be somewhat faulty, but we can reduce the fault, if you will. We can never be perfect, but we can reduce our vulnerability. And, for example, we talked about gullibility.
DUNNING: There are a number of resources that are being developed on the internet, even as we speak, that are focused on how do we get people to better evaluate what they’re hearing over the internet.
DUNNING: And just to go over the – what the key move is, is that typically what people do is when they see something that’s a provocative headline, for example, they look at the website and try to figure out just based on that headline and the website and its design itself, is this something that I can believe.
And so if it has a snazzy professional picture, for example, they decide it must be more believable. No, that’s not the way to decide whether or not something is true or not. Instead of internal reading, what you have to do is something that all fact checkers know, which is you have to do lateral reading. You have to go to other sources.
DUNNING: You have to go to other people once again and find out, are there other sources saying the same thing, is there any comment on the reliability of the source you’re looking at now from other places, am I looking at something that’s mainstream or am I looking at something that’s made up.
What people have to become is a little bit more like a journalist. And what journalists do and what fact-checkers do is they check from multiple sources. They go to other sources to take a look at whether or not this piece of information is one that I can rely on.
And so in terms of nudges, there are thematic judges – nudges like lateral reading. But there are also more specific things now that are popping up on the internet. That can be quite helpful, at least in this on this issue.
RITHOLTZ: That’s quite intriguing. Although, I guess, you could do the same thing with the deepfakes that are coming out. Some of the videos are really horrifying, because they just look so real. How can you do a lateral check and find out if something like that is real?
DUNNING: Well, I actually do this. I actually Google and see if anybody else has basically said, “Oh, well, this is a deepfake, basically.” So you can’t tell from the video itself because they are incredibly good now.
DUNNING: You really have to go to other sources and find out what the other sources are saying. So – and often what you find, for example, if you do that, you’ll find out this videotape was created by such and such or this videotape actually comes from some other incident that has nothing to do with what’s going on here.
But basically, in terms of dealing with misinformation, I think, either – whether we’re talking about students in school or whether we’re talking about adults, the thing we have to do is learn a little journalism.
By the way, just quick, other countries have actually gone this route in a big way. So Finland, because it’s right next to Russia and it has been at a cool war with Russia for the last hundred years knows that Russian disinformation is coming over. And so they’re actually training students and training adults about how to tell fake from real in an intensive way that – well, we could borrow a few of their techniques.
RITHOLTZ: Quite interesting. There was something else in the book I had to ask you about. What is anosognosia?
DUNNING: Anosognosia. I don’t know if I pronounced that right, but I don’t …
RITHOLTZ: Neither do – I certainly have no – I know that I have no idea if I pronounced that right. I can barely spit it out.
DUNNING: That’s true, but I have enough to think I know and I really haven’t checked in a while to figure out if I really know how to pronounce that. Well, anosognosia is actually a term that comes from medicine and has to do with issues where – because of brain injury, people are paralyzed, but don’t know that they’re paralyzed, so …
RITHOLTZ: Oh, really?
DUNNING: … oh, yes. So, for example, if you – if a person is paralyzed, I believe it’s the left arm and put a cup of water in front of them and say, “OK, pick up the cup.” Well, the person can’t move their arm. They’re paralyzed, they can’t move their arm.
But if you ask the person, why aren’t they picking up the cup, they may say something like, “I’m not thirsty. Why would I want to pick up the cup?” That is they have no awareness.
RITHOLTZ: Sort of like the – yes. Sort of like the split brain experiments?
DUNNING: Well, split brain experiments are exactly that where the one side of the brain can point to the right object, but that’s not the side of the brain that controls talking, that controls verbal skills. But if you ask the person why did you point to that, they can come up with something. That is – that part of our brain is very good at interpreting how to understand novel situations.
So we can come up with justifications. We can come up with rationales for why we do what we do quite easily. Our brain is an incredible storyteller. But, you know, incredible storyteller is sometimes tell fiction, and our brain is quite good at coming up with fiction at times.
RITHOLTZ: That’s quite interesting. I didn’t know you were going to go – where you’re going to go with the idea of that injury and paralysis. It started to remind me a little bit of the aphasias where people lose the ability to speak, but they could sing or they can’t write but they could still read.
RITHOLTZ: And it seems like there’s almost a very specific part of the brain that performs very specific functions and if it’s injured, everything else related still works it’s just that one skill seems to go away.
DUNNING: That’s right. But the issue with a lot of physical maladies and our work can be thought of as metaphorical extension of that to intellectual capabilities. A lot of people don’t know the physical maladies that they’ve got. So as people become hard-of-hearing, they often don’t know that they’re becoming hard-of-hearing. And so they’ll wonder why everybody is mumbling.
DUNNING: For example, a lot of people who are color-blind don’t know they’re color-blind.
DUNNING: Because they’ve never not been color blind.
RITHOLTZ: I had no idea. I thought you would – like when you look at a stoplight, you can see what are people talking about with red lights and green lights. They all look gray to me. Does that not register or is that …
DUNNING: Apparently not, because you have – you’ve never experienced red or you’ve never experienced green, so you don’t know what you’re missing?
RITHOLTZ: When you mention everybody’s mumbling when I turned 50, I remember having – I – this is absolutely true, I had a conversation with my wife. We’re sitting at the breakfast table one Sunday and I said, “I don’t know what’s going on with The New York Times, but they’re using some cheaper paper. Look how fuzzy the words are.”
RITHOLTZ: And then I said, “Look, The Wall Street Journal, it’s the same thing.” And my wife says, “Idiot. You need glasses.” And I’m like, “What? No. No, I have perfect vision.” She hands me her glasses and I’m like, “Oh, I had no idea my vision had decayed so much at the ripe old age of 51 some years ago.” And it’s that exact same thing.
You have no idea that the gradual decay is taking place.
DUNNING: No, that’s right.
RITHOLTZ: So what else are you working on? You field of study has very much evolves since the original Dunning-Kruger work. What else are you looking at these days?
DUNNING: Well, a related idea that we’ve been looking at quite a bit is this idea of hypocognition.
DUNNING: Hypocognition. And the best way to explain it is if you don’t know what hypocognition is, congratulations, you’ve just experienced hypocognition.
DUNNING: Hypocognition is not having a concept, if you will. So not having the idea of unknown unknowns. In the financial – a lot of people invest, but they don’t really have the concept of exponential growth or compound interest.
RITHOLTZ: Compounding is – most probability and statistical things are very counterintuitive, people just can’t wrap their head around that. And when you show people compounding charts, they’re very often credulous – incredulous that, wait, this much money can – I had a whole discussion about the number of 401(k) millionaires and the person said, “Well, maybe
years ago, but you couldn’t do that now.”
Why can’t you do that now? It’s still got however many years it is and here’s what your expected returns are over 40 years. Oh, P.S., your contribution levels are up. It’s easier today than it was 30, 40 years ago.
DUNNING: Oh, that’s right. But if you don’t have the concept, what you are talking about seems alien, foreign or a little bit of a con.
DUNNING: So – but we’re studying that in a number of ways, because we’re interested, for example, what if people don’t have a concept of scientific rigor. They don’t know all of the rules that I have to live under, for example …
DUNNING: … to verify or make the case for any sort of conclusion that I want to reach. And that turns out to be related to two perceptions out there in the world. The first perception is scientists can say whatever they want.
RITHOLTZ: Is that a real perception? Do people really think that?
DUNNING: Not a majority, but a clear percentage of people believe that.
RITHOLTZ: Is that specific to this country or is that global?
DUNNING: That I don’t know. I’ve only studied it within this country and it’s also related, by the way, to distrust in science. That you just – you don’t have to listen to scientists, what they have to say really isn’t useful.
And that – it all does trace back, in part, but an important part to not knowing that how much work it is to reduce a piece of scientific knowledge. You don’t have the idea of control condition, random assignment, I can go on and on. You can’t cherry-pick.
People don’t know these rules. And as a consequence, they think scientists are just some professors in their office dreaming up a conclusion and then collecting some data to window address it, for example.
RITHOLTZ: And yet we use technology to such a great deal. Do people think these are like, oh, look, a magic box that I can speak to people on. It’s magic. Do they not get technology and engineering is based on fundamental science? I mean, that seems pretty obvious. If science doesn’t work, then how could you fly in a plane, how could you take medicine, how you use, you know, there’s – we get into an elevator at least in cities every day, is it a magic box or is there science behind it?
It just – it seems so hard to accept that people are really science skeptical.
DUNNING: Well, I agree, but I assure you that that percentage of people does exist.
RITHOLTZ: How – what percentage of people that you study are truly science skeptic?
DUNNING: Well, we’re not using representative samples, but in the samples we get and they’re actually a better educated than the average American. It’s about 20 percent – 25 percent, let’s say.
DUNNING: But I can’t – I don’t know what the real percentage is because I haven’t done anything. That’s a good representative snapshot, let’s say, of the United States. But you have to understand that a lot of people – I mean, the ignorance of the scientific method runs so deep that a lot of people don’t understand that scientists collect data.
DUNNING: They don’t understand that. So that’s the process and that data have the final authority in what you’re able to conclude and what you’re able to say. It just doesn’t appear to them. So if you ask students, let’s say in college or in high school, do they believe in oxygen or do they believe in the in the electron.
They’ll go, “Yes. Yes.” “Why?” And they don’t cite an experiment. They don’t cite data. They basically say, “That’s what everybody says. That’s what my teacher says. That’s what my parents say.”
So for a lot of people, the idea of data is not what they think about. They’re basing their beliefs on what other people say. By the way, which is the same basis they use to believe in things like reincarnation or ghosts or karma. That is the basis for people’s scientific beliefs, tends to be the same as the basis of their supernatural beliefs.
RITHOLTZ: So it’s just whatever the societal consensus is, they’re accepted.
DUNNING: It’s social proof. That’s exactly right.
RITHOLTZ: Social proof. And, you know, the one question before I get to my favorite question, the one thing I wanted to ask you earlier, but for – didn’t get to was – comes back to the 1999 paper blowing up and becoming so popular. After that happens, how did that affect your subsequent research? Did it affect the topics you picked? Did it affect the options you had available? Like what did this paper blowing up do to your subsequent research?
DUNNING: Well, for many years, it didn’t do anything. Because it was known but the internet wasn’t fully in place yet. It wasn’t a thing yet. I think that’s happened far – much more recently. So I went off and studied whatever I studied, but then the world sort of told me, “No, we want you to look at this.” And that’s OK because this was always the paper I didn’t know how to follow up.
RITHOLTZ: So you have the 2018 follow up, what else came out of this paper?
DUNNING: Oh, a number of things have come out of this paper. So the question is when are people most vulnerable of the Dunning-Kruger effect and the answer is when they have an answer, when they believe they have expertise or they can spin a yarn, if you will. I mean, there are times when you just simply cannot come up with an answer and you know that you don’t know.
DUNNING: You know when you’re guessing and that’s some recent work. We now have under review that shows that people know when they’re guessing. The problem with the Dunning-Kruger effect is when you don’t think you’re guessing and coming up with the wrong answer.
It’s led to this work on a hypocognition. It’s led to this work gullibility. We’re now looking at do people know when they really need to ask for advice. That’s an important consequence. But a lot of these questions really weren’t formed in my head until I started interacting with people like you or reporters or people in the airport, for example.
RITHOLTZ: Are people randomly stopping you to ask Dunning-Kruger questions?
DUNNING: Well, it has happened. I mean, you know …
RITHOLTZ: There’s no escaping the baggage carousel. You’re a prisoner over there.
DUNNING: Well, no, luckily no one can see my little label on the luggage. But if my name gets called, you know, to get a seat assignment or whatever, something like that, occasionally a person will come over and say, “Are you that Dunning?” I kind of go, “This is wild.”
DUNNING: So it had that impact. But basically I’m in, let’s say, the last act of my research career and the world has told me this is what it wants me to look at. So where – I’m now really asking the question, do people really not know what they don’t know and what implications does that have?
RITHOLTZ: Huh, quite fascinating. When is that research coming out?
DUNNING: Hopefully soon to a journal and eventually a book near you.
RITHOLTZ: Excellent. All right. So let me jump to my favorite questions that we ask all of our guests. Feel free to go as long or short as you like with this.
RITHOLTZ: And these are really designed to be telling us to – who you are because we may not know who you are.
What was the first car you ever owned? Year, make and model?
DUNNING: The first car I owned was a 1976 Ford Pinto. It was a mint julep green Ford Pinto. So if anybody is interested you should Google mint julep green Ford Pinto. And you will see pictures of a color that exists nowhere else on this world.
RITHOLTZ: Yes. That is insult to injury. A terrible car in an awful color.
DUNNING: Oh, and that – this car was the epitome of all of that.
RITHOLTZ: So a little more interesting question. What are you streaming or listening to or watching these days?
DUNNING: Well, in terms of streaming, my taste these days run to, let’s say, intellectual fantasy series like “Watchmen” or “Westworld” is about to come on “Star Trek: Picard,” for example. In terms of streaming music, well, I’m a BBC Two – excuse me, BBC 6, CBC-2 kind of guy.
DUNNING: I’m listening to a lot of Canadian pop music at the moment.
RITHOLTZ: OK. I was going to say what is BBC 6.
DUNNING: Oh, BBC 6 six is basically British pop music.
RITHOLTZ: British like Brit pop from the ’70s or more recent?
DUNNING: Oh, no, it’s contemporary. It’s more alternative, if you will.
DUNNING: But I find what’s going on in Britain and Canada to be more interesting than what’s going on in the United States in terms of pop.
RITHOLTZ: I’ve been listening to Bob Harris on BBC for forever.
RITHOLTZ: And I love the sort of – he covers all genres and decades. It’s always interesting …
DUNNING: That’s exactly what these two channels …
RITHOLTZ: Oh, really?
DUNNING: … the Canadian and – yes.
RITHOLTZ: That’s very interesting. And if you like “Watchmen”, I just had this conversation yesterday. Have you seen on Amazon Prime “The Boys”?
RITHOLTZ: All right. So really very quickly. It’s a sort of anti-superhero world, where all of the superheroes are these corporate-owned entities and they turn out to really not be as saving society as they appear to be so much as earning a corporate buck and it’s really quite fascinating. If you’re at all interested in – “Watchmen” is not quite, but there are some parallels there.
RITHOLTZ: That the – it was really fascinating. It’s a little grisly, parts of it, but it’s cartoonish so it’s not real volume. It’s not real violence, it’s cartoon violence. Although, you know, it can get a little gory …
DUNNING: But it’s having a contemporary theme.
RITHOLTZ: Yes, totally.
DUNNING: And reimagining this sort of genre in light of contemporary themes, that would be very interesting.
RITHOLTZ: Yes. Exactly. So what’s the most important thing that people don’t know about David Dunning?
DUNNING: Interesting question. Well, originally, when I was a kid, I first wanted to be a cartoonist and then a screenwriter.
DUNNING: In fact, when I was 13, I actually submitted a spec script to the TV show “MASH”.
RITHOLTZ: No kidding.
DUNNING: It was rejected but I had in my hand – I’ve since lost them – I regret losing them. I had little handwritten notes from Larry Gelbart, the producer of the show who was …
DUNNING: … then and now a hero of mine.
RITHOLTZ: Wow, yes.
DUNNING: So …
RITHOLTZ: He’s an interesting guy.
RITHOLTZ: Who were some of your early mentors? What psychologists influenced your approach to what you do?
DUNNING: I would have to say I had a great set of mentors both as an undergraduate and as a graduate student. Undergraduate, Michigan State Professors Larry Messe and Joel Aronoff were very influential. Then I went to Stanford and I was a Lee Raw (ph) student.
And Michigan State taught me rigor. Stanford and Lee (ph) taught me humanity, how to put humanity into the work. Make it an interesting human story. But I don’t think anybody who was around – everybody who was around Amos Tversky thinks of him as an influence. Because if you want to know what smart looks like, Amos was smart.
And this is often something they tell undergraduates. Pick a professor who everybody says is the smartest, because you need to see what smart looks like.
DUNNING: That’ll be the – content doesn’t matter. You want to see what smart looks like. So Amos Tversky, Phoebe Ellsworth were tremendous influences and basically how I spend my day.
RITHOLTZ: Quite interesting. Tell us about some of your favorite books. What are you reading these days? What do you like?
DUNNING: Well, the problem with the books I read now is they’re all related to my work.
DUNNING: And reading is a little bit tough because I do it for the job so much. But – so actually, what I’ve been doing is going back to classics from my youth. So the book form of “Swimming to Cambodia” is something I recently read. And I’m trying to find “Gödel, Escher, Bach”.
RITHOLTZ: I can’t believe – you’re bringing up some my old time classics.
DUNNING: There you go. Well, I want to go back now that I’m older, what do I think of them now, for example, as to – the way to think about it. But a lot of what I do is I just read long form on the web. So every morning I get the “Ritholtz Reads”.
DUNNING: And …
RITHOLTZ: Do you find them interesting? Because I really sift through a ton of stuff to find 10 really interesting things.
DUNNING: You’re sifting, at least to me, it works very well, if you will.
DUNNING: Because I find great things to read. The thing that I have to do is discipline myself not to tweet the readings you’re suggesting, because then I just be ripping you off.
RITHOLTZ: Feel free.
RITHOLTZ: Listen, I’m just putting together a list of – except for Tuesdays where it’s 15 instead of 10. I don’t know where “Two-for-Tuesday” came from but somehow that’s become – I am a creature of habit and I’ve learned that if I want to do something, if I can turn it into a habit, I can make it repetitive. And it’s really just once you start doing something for a month or two, it becomes ingrained.
Forget a decade or two, that’s a whole different thing. And that – the “Reads” began as a way of just being organized.
DUNNING: Yes. Yes.
RITHOLTZ: There’s so much stuff to read. Let me eliminate all of the junk and let me see what’s left that’s good.
People don’t realize this is really a golden age of journalism writing.
RITHOLTZ: I used to go to through the process of the morning of figuring out what’s relevant and what do I want to read. That sort of concept of curation by extreme prejudice by saying, if this isn’t well done and well researched and well written and on a topic that’s interesting, I can’t be bothered with it, because everything is so ephemeral and superficial led to – I used to do that manually. I used to print it out. This is a hundred years ago.
RITHOLTZ: And someone said, “Hey, could you just give me a list of what you’re reading instead of a hardcopy?”
RITHOLTZ: And – oh, OK. And that eventually became a – that eventually became the “Morning Reads” and I think I’ve been doing that for like 20 years or so.
DUNNING: Oh, wow.
RITHOLTZ: It’s – I’m at the point now where I could be a sentence or two in to piece and I’m like, “Nope.” Like I could tell immediately if something is good or bad. So you’re not reading a whole lot of books in other words.
DUNNING: No. Basically because I do so much reading that I prefer shorter punchier things.
DUNNING: And you’re absolutely right, there’s so much terrific information, some terrific blogs on the web, for example, that …
RITHOLTZ: Give us some blog names, what do you like?
DUNNING: The blog name I would point out actually is a blog called “Stumbling and Mumbling”.
RITHOLTZ: Oh, sure. I remember that.
RITHOLTZ: From – that became big about 10, 12, 15 years ago.
DUNNING: Well, it still goes on.
DUNNING: And I find the blogger to be extremely persuasive.
DUNNING: It’s about England, so it’s not about the Knights.
DUNNING: So that’s good and often has some insights, I would dearly love to steal, but that one I find to be quite good in terms of political commentary, the blog “Progress Pond”, I find to be extremely interesting.
RITHOLTZ: Not familiar.
DUNNING: But – well, it’s a Democratic activist, if you will. But he’s rather clear-eyed. He does stand off from the sermon drum of the day to really try to figure out what’s going on or to project what’s going on or (inaudible) …
RITHOLTZ: So not a Bernie Bro.
DUNNING: Not a – in fact, he is not a Bernie Bro. That’s absolutely clear.
RITHOLTZ: It’s – by the time this broadcast, we will already have had the Super Tuesday results. We will be pretty deep into the primary season. We may even have a nominee by then. That’ll be kind of kind of interesting. Do you – when you look at politics, do you ever find yourself with opinions and then catch yourself saying – self saying I have no expertise and this is just my own opinion. Are you self aware of your own Dunning-Kruger?
DUNNING: Well, in politics, absolutely. So whenever I pronounce something in politics, I usually presage it or preamble it with – well, this is for entertainment value only, so …
RITHOLTZ: Quite interesting. Tell us about a you failed and what you learned from the experience.
DUNNING: Well, a chronic failure I had, ultimately, it was successful or the project was successful, but it took 15 years, was this work on trust where basically the finding is that people trust complete strangers even though economics tells us they shouldn’t. Because why would a person ever honor your trust, they’re a complete stranger.
But people do trust and our civilization profits because of that. And I looked at that and I said, “OK, clearly the economics is failing clearly in two years and a psychological team will be able to figure this out.”
So I tried hypothesis after hypothesis after hypothesis. I ran hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of subjects. All of my hypotheses failed. They often failed in interesting ways. They failed in ways that cohered with one another. But for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what was going on.
That ultimately led to this emphasis on norms and the norm of respect and politeness with other people. We trust other people because we have to respect them and to distrust them is to disrespect them. That took 15 years in the making to get to.
What I’ve learned from that, though, is I learned that there can be rules of human nature, but they can be so deep that none of our subjects knew what was going on. People could never explain it. And I’m the professional and I couldn’t explain it. Some things can run that deep. So that’s what I learned.
But that was 15 years of failed data, which I could only bear because of the good graces of tenure.
RITHOLTZ: That’s really interesting. There’s a book that come – it’s sort of related to the normative issue and the trust issue and there’s a whole bunch of cognitive other things by Will Storr called “The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science”, are you familiar with this?
DUNNING: Interesting. I’m not familiar with it.
RITHOLTZ: So he is a journalist who embeds himself with all sorts of groups that you would otherwise think of as wacky, extreme, crazy.
RITHOLTZ: And whether it’s flat earthers or science deniers or climate change – it’s one group after another that’s very relevant to the science denial issue and his sort of thesis is these people aren’t bad or evil or dumb. There’s something fundamentally wrong with their basic model of the world.
RITHOLTZ: And once that building block is set, you know, it’s like aiming for the moon. If you’re off just a little bit – an inch or two here, you’re off by millions of miles as you whiz by.
RITHOLTZ: When their fundamental model of the universe is off, everything constructed on top of that just takes them in these crazy directions. And it’s not, hey, these aren’t – some of these are evil people, but that’s not necessarily how they went so far astray. It’s a fundamental …
RITHOLTZ: … fundamental error that just keeps compounding and it’s quite fascinating. It’s really an interesting book if you’ve never seen it before.
So what do you do for fun? What do you do when you’re not reading academic research papers?
DUNNING: Well, I’m older so a lot of what I do is I watch stuff on a screen whether it’d be television or not. During the – when the term is in session I’ll tend to watch a lot of sports, but not the typical sports. So I’m a big fan of Arsenal, the soccer team in England.
DUNNING: And I know that you’re knowledgeable – listeners out there are thinking, oh, I’m so sorry.
RITHOLTZ: No. Well, “World Cup” is fascinating.
RITHOLTZ: And when you get to – “World Cup” soccer is really there’s no commercial breaks. It’s practically – they don’t, you know, American sports you used to …
RITHOLTZ: … you know, you watch “World Cup” and like – there have been times where it’s like, geez, it’s 60 minutes. We haven’t had a break yet, it’s kind of amazing. And there’s a flow to that game that is really unique and it’s a beautiful sport.
DUNNING: Oh, yes.
RITHOLTZ: If you appreciate it for what it is.
DUNNING: It truly is the beautiful game.
DUNNING: And there’s a lot of strategy and a lot of incident going on once you’ve been around enough to realize what incident is. I mean, there’s not much scoring. But that actually makes the games more exciting because a goal matters so much. The games are always on edge and things could change in a minute that it can truly lead to excitement.
But it’s also a sport that can truly lead to despair. I found uniquely.
RITHOLTZ: Well, I live in New York, so between the Mets and the Knicks, I know all about despair. The – I wish they would stop with the flopping in “World Cup” and soccer. It’s gotten to be way too much.
RITHOLTZ: So within your field, what are you most optimistic about today and what are you most pessimistic about?
DUNNING: The most exciting thing in my field right now is the introduction of Big Data.
DUNNING: If you will. That is there are many social psychological questions and also questions of interest to people in the world that can be addressed with Big Data. There’s just great sources of data out there. And how it’s going to be exploited, I have no idea. But I bet it’s going to be great.
So in the field of behavioral science in general, I’m very much looking forward to that. As long as people who have the data and as – and the people who know traditional theory, join up …
DUNNING: … because it is the case that a lot of people who do traditional theory don’t know that – these data sources exist and so opportunities are missed. And the people who have big data don’t realize that they can be quite naive in their thinking about how to test the ideas that they have. They need to connect up with the theory people. If that happens, it’s going to be great.
RITHOLTZ: Quite interesting. I always look at Facebook, which I’m not a big fan of as a user and I just imagine they must have unbelievable reams of data about all sorts of individuals and groups and then how they behave in certain situations. I got to think a team of research psychologists could have a field day with that.
DUNNING: Oh, anthropologists, sociologists, economists, you name it. Absolutely.
RITHOLTZ: Interesting. And our final two questions.
What sort of advice would you give to a recent college graduate who was interested in a career in psychology and research?
DUNNING: Get some mentors and get more than one, essentially.
DUNNING: Absolutely. Whether they’d be from your home institution or any institution going to wherever. People are willing to give advice and some of it is actually good. But also meet people, be somewhat aggressive of that, but also present yourself. Give talks. Have a blog, for example. It forces you to think, but it also gets you out there for people to see. And I don’t think younger folk do that much. There are younger folk who do that, but I think there could be many more voices added to the mix.
RITHOLTZ: And our final question, what do you know about the world of psychology today that you wish you knew 30 years ago or so when you were just beginning your career?
DUNNING: Oh, boy. That’s extremely interesting question. I sort of wish I had known what the trends were going to be in my field, because I’ve been around the block for quite a bit and I was – the reason I’m in psychology is because of the specific issues that are at the forefront of psychology and social psychology at that point.
And then it was really about misbelief, errors that people made and so forth. That’s sort of the foundation which I built my career. Now – and by the way, what we weren’t asked to do is we weren’t asked to solve those questions. The idea of nudging was several decades and into the future. And now the field is very much about, “OK, what do you do about it?”
And I’m a little bit behind the younger generation, because I didn’t have to pay attention to it. And I wish I known that at some point, the field was going to get to the obvious question of, we have all this knowledge about what people do that is a mistake, how do you get people to avoid those mistakes or repair those mistakes or how in general do you improve people’s lives.
Finally, the field got to that. I wish someone had come to me and basically said that question is going to be the question in the future, you should prepare.
RITHOLTZ: But, you know, not too long ago it wasn’t really thought of as academics jobs. It’s like, “Hey, just tell us what the analogists and the policymakers will figure out as solution.”
DUNNING: Oh, that’s absolutely right. It was going to be – that was going to be offloaded to somebody else. But it’s finally coming into the field and I think in part because science does react to society and now people are developing apps to do this, computer programs to do that, new technology that helps this other thing.
So the idea is the end point is how do you develop something that people can use. It’s much more in the heads of younger researchers than it is for older researchers. They think of that as the natural endpoint of research. And I should have been prepared for that shift in time.
RITHOLTZ: Quite interesting. Thank you, David, for being so generous with your time. We have been speaking with Professor David Dunning of the University of Michigan. If you enjoy this conversation, well, look up an inch or down an inch on Apple iTunes and you can see any of the previous 300 plus conversations we’ve had over the past five and a half years. We love you.
Comments, feedback and suggestions, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Leave comments. What was I going to say? Leave a review on Apple iTunes. If you want to see the daily reads that Professor Dunning referenced, you could find those at ritholtz.com and sign up there. Check out my weekly column on Bloomberg.com. Follow me on Twitter @Ritholtz.
I would be remiss if I did not thank the crack staff who helps me put together this conversation each week. Sam Shivraj is my producer/booker. Michael Batnick is my head of research. Nick Falco is my audio engineer. I’m Barry Ritholtz. You’ve been listening to Masters in Business on Bloomberg Radio.
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