The Dunning-Kruger effect – does it work for emotions too?

As part of my research into the latest novel, I stumbled upon this absolute gem of a study. It has seriously made my week. For anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of already knowing this, the paper they did is titled, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments” (1999). Basically, if you’re really dumb, you will never realise it. In fact, you’ll honestly believe that you’re actually very smart and are exceptionally good at lots of things. You won’t doubt your own abilities or understanding of anything, because you’ll know better than everyone else.

It explains so much of the world. I’m sure everyone can think of people they’ve met who baffle you with their confident assertions of ridiculousness until you start doubting yourself. I have a particular person I know, who without naming names or identifying them in any way, leaves me almost speechless on a regular basis. Things so obviously false are said with such utter certainty that you have to stop and do an internal check and a quick summation of proof for your own interpretation of reality before you can respond. But part of the problem is also that if you’re unaware of your own stupidity, you’re unlikely to change. In a follow-up study, “Why the Unskilled are Unaware: Further Explorations of (Absent) Self-insight Among the Incompetent “(2008) they found that people who performed badly in testing did not learn from feedback suggesting a need to improve. People who performed well though, did learn from feedback they were given on how to improve.

Though I enjoyed reading about it, relishing, finally, an explanation for that person in my life, it does start one down a rabbit hole of introspection. Basically, any time I’m not doubting myself could be a time when I’m being stupid.

On the other hand, all those times where I do doubt my own abilities, like when I wonder whether I should keep pursuing a career in writing because maybe I’m really crap at it and it’s only my friends telling me they like my writing to be nice, maybe I’m actually doing okay. It’s somewhat reassuring, but endless self-doubt is time consuming, as well as boring for other people. It can also stop you from doing the things you need to do, like marketing.

Then I though about relationships and whether the Dunning-Kruger effect could apply to emotional intelligence too. To give some context as to why I might wonder this, up until my late thirties, I thought I was rock solid and had escaped a not ideal childhood almost totally unscathed. It’s only been lately that I’ve been recognising that I have issues I’ve been oblivious to for years. As an example, I have trouble identifying my emotions. I have a few go-to responses for almost every situation, and sometimes they aren’t the most sensible. For instance, if someone does something that I find hurtful, I shut down completely. I don’t talk and I don’t explain, I just disappear. If I don’t see the person, I don’t have to think about what happened. It’s like an emotional magic show where I make the thing that wounded me vanish like it never happened. Which is stupid, obviously. It isn’t a rational response, and doesn’t help the situation, at all. I know this, so now I have to try to change this response, which isn’t easy.

But, now that I know that I’m emotionally stupid, does that mean that I’m not?

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