The Knowledge Vs Confidence Graph

Once in a while, we encounter these people who are so confident and sometimes even overconfident about some aspects of their abilities. What might be most annoying about them is the fact that they are being honest and they don’t even realize that they are ignorant! It is also possible that this person could be you or me. Read along …















Welcome to the Dunning-Kruger Effect …

Simply put, this is a form of bias in which an individual erroneously over rates their ability or knowledge of a given subject. They assess their cognitive abilities to be great when in the real sense, their abilities are nothing but close to great.

Developed in 1999 by David Dunning and Justin Kruger, the Dunning-Kruger effect also states the opposite for highly knowledgeable people. While some people are disillusioned that they are highly knowledgeable on a given subject, those who are truly knowledgeable may be under the illusion that their knowledge is not good enough. And when the truly knowledgeable are confident about their knowledge, they may also suffer from the illusion that that what they know is so easy and that everybody else is well versed with it.

Whenever one feels that they are knowledgeable (and sometimes therefore skilled enough), their level of confidence also soars. On the other hand, when one is fully aware of how much they still don’t know, their level of confidence also tend to go South. Below is a graph that perfectly illustrates this, what I will call the Knowledge Vs Confidence Curve.

Knowledge vs confidence curve


















For most people, when their level of knowledge or skill is still at amateur-level, the confidence about their abilities is often sky-high. However, after studying for some time and realizing how much there is to know, then their confidence will start to decline. The more you realize you don’t know, the lower your confidence level goes.

However, over time, with passion and persistence, you steadily cover what there is know and master. Your level of confidence then starts to climb again but this time, more slowly. The more you cover and master, the more your confidence becomes. You become an expert indeed.

If you have ever had interest in any given domain of knowledge and gone out of your way to teach yourself with the aim of becoming an authority in that domain, then this graph must feel far too familiar to you.

Just the fact that you know one or two things about your subject of interest and that you can effortlessly explain it to a 5 year old what the domain entails, gives you so much confidence more so if the people surrounding you do not have the slightest clue about “your domain of authority”.


What's your favorite nebula?
Your true abilities can only be proved as being adequate by a different party, not yourself













Take the example of astronomy, it is a truly interesting domain to dive into. Filled with many surprising facts and and “Wow moments“. When you’re just starting out, you feel awesome that you actually know a lot of stuff you previously didn’t know. You feel enlightened and over some time, you are even confident enough to say it is your favourite subject when your date asks what things you enjoy reading. But then she asks for your favourite nebula and you realize there’s still more stuff you don’t know about.

That is just one example.

This phenomena can be observed in our lives on a near-daily basis. Recruiters are faced everyday by amateurs who are so confident about their skills and if talking is the only parameter they use to measure a candidate’s abilities pertaining a given skill-set, then they might end up hiring an orator for a machine learning expert.

In fact, most of us have the habit of describing ourselves as “hardworking”, “intelligent”, “team player”, “honest” … Look at any average CV out there to notice where this is coming from. What we don’t realize is that we lack adequate cognitive abilities to give a verdict on our own abilities. In fact, the best verdict we should give of our own abilities is that we actually don’t know how good we are and that we only make effort to be what those virtues actually describe.

In fact, one person that I personally consider to be truly gifted and talented in his work does not even consider himself entirely knowledgeable. I will call him John.  He is the most knowledgeable person in field of computer programming and  everyday many people I know (me included) strive to become like half of what he is. Asked about his own mastery of the Django web framework, John said that he wished he had mastered all there is to know about Django, only then he would consider himself an expert.

The ability to recognize how much there is to know or how much you do not yet know is one that comes with a lot of humility and sometimes the most knowledgeable people (or most skilled) people will just stand on the periphery so that they take time to observe and learn more about a problem and may only come forward when they are sure they have a solution.

Discovering how little your knowledge or skill-level is should also be seen as an opportunity to increase your skills and knowledge set and hence become a better.

On the other hand, I am not sure that most people in the business world would subscribe to this. But most people in academia probably would. I will exit with some food for thought from the famous Sir Richard Branson.


Otuoma Sanya

Otuoma Sanya is a full-time systems librarian, tech enthusiast and writer. His areas of interest are data mining, institutional repositories, library automation and web development using python Django.

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