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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The bullshit truck and other theories

I’ve been ridiculously thrilled with some of the latest theories on the way women interact with each other and society. The poodle/wolf one was a cracker, though it only took me a nanosecond to work out that I was nether a wolf nor a poodle. Frankly, I suck at camping but well-groomed is definitely not my default factory setting. In the way that people resemble their dogs, I’ve come to the inescapable conclusion that I’m actually a golden retriever. I really don’t mind getting dirty but I like to have a shower afterwards. I’m also occasionally easily startled and have an aversion to vacuum cleaners.

The next brilliant one was the friendship bus. The theory goes that all women have a mental bus and once all the seats are full, then you can’t add another one without booting someone off. Initially, I thought, “That’s just stupid!” but then I happened to break up with two friends and suddenly, there are two more women in my life. I started thinking that maybe it wasn’t just a coincidence and maybe I did have a bus? The idea is pretty odd, but it makes sense in a way. I only have so much free time and possibly I can’t tend to more friendships that I have without compromising the quality of the emotional investment. The ones who were removed from the bus (for different reasons) led to me thinking up my own social human interactive theory (SHIT).

My own SHIT goes like this: everyone has a bullshit truck. This is a truck, varying from a ute to one of those huge mining trucks, where everyone shovels all the crap they encounter everyday. Every time they swallow the truth and give a bland, socially acceptable response instead of the one they really want to, that bullshit goes in the back of the truck, weighing it down. It accumulates and grows until the truck is full. And when the truck is full, people start being honest, despite the fallout because they can’t add any more bullshit to the pile.

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My bullshit truck reached capacity a few weeks ago, and it was scary but incredibly liberating. I told the truth, I let someone know that what they were doing was not okay and got a massive amount of stuff done. When you’re not trying to be nice and easy-going, it frees up a significant amount of time and mental energy.  I wasn’t concerned with the fall-out, accepting that I would deal with whatever came later. I got on a real roll, and cleared away some jobs that I had been dreading, but it nearly got away from me. I had to phone a friend, my lovely cousin, who was the voice of absolute reason and stopped me from taking it too far and irreparably damaging a relationship that wasn’t one that I could remove from my life.

My bullshit truck emptied out and I again have the capacity for general social interaction where niceties are adhered to and feelings are spared. I don’t think I could live that way all the time, but I really enjoyed my brief veering off the tracks. It was almost like a mental holiday, with sandy beaches of frankness and the bright sun of outspokenness, topped off by the Pina Colada of candour.

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The Reality of Man Candy

Because I follow a lot of blogs and possibly because I share the interests of many women my age cough* cough*, my Facebook feed has become overwhelmed with photos of largely topless men and some who have only strategically placed items to protect what little modesty remains to them. I’ve thought it pretty amusing, but haven’t given it much further thought. Here’s one to show you what I mean (it’s not gratuitous, at all):

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Until this morning, when I came face to face with it. Given I live at the beach now, it shouldn’t have been surprising as there is a smorgasbord of young backpackers walking around sunning themselves. But this was different. It was a fair way back from the beach, up the hill where the residents live and outside the supermarket. A man, who would generously be about 30 years old, wearing shorts and  nothing else. He clearly put a huge amount of time and effort into the large and defined muscles on his body and equal time trimming his hair and beard. He could have been one of the chests that had popped up on my screen, the look was so familiar to me. But something about it was off.

Driving home, I tried to put my finger on what exactly it was that I found off-putting. Surely I should have been ogling, as I’m sure was his intent, given that all around him were fully clothed on this slightly chilly morning. And it wasn’t just that I couldn’t picture myself ever being with someone who looked like that, it was that I genuinely didn’t want to. Having dated a guy when I was much younger who spent an inordinate amount of time in the gym, I know how restrictive it is. It also tends to be boring, with your partner constantly being vigilant about what they eat and drink and tired because they work out so much.

As a woman, I know about the pressure society puts on you to look good. Though I might rail against it at times and the double standard, I still get my hair and nails done and put on makeup most days. It makes me feel good and I enjoy it, even while acknowledging to myself the increasing futility of meeting expectations while aging. I put in some effort, while consciously making the decision to not go to extremes, which for me is fillers onwards. I realise others draw the line earlier, possibly in the area of hair removal, others what I consider later with lasers, and some just ask “what line are you talking about?”. A couple of years ago, I did some copywriting for a plastic surgeon’s website and that for me was an eye-opener. I decided there was nothing about myself that I disliked enough to voluntarily be cut open and chopped up, and then deal with being in recovery for at least 2 months.

I look at those recognisably sliced and diced women that are common in the areas I frequent and I don’t understand the attraction to that look. But then I wonder if I’m falling into the trap we accuse men of perpetuating of wanting us to look effortlessly, naturally beautiful instead of breaking the myth about how hard it actually is, as well as expensive, to look “normal”.

So this guy was essentially being a woman. In order to look as cut, muscled and groomed as he did, he would have had to prioritise looking good ahead of many things in his life. Given he was walking around half-dressed at 9.30am on a weekday morning, he probably wasn’t heading off to an office job and he didn’t look like someone who got their hands dirty working a trade.  I’m assuming that whatever job he had, it would relate in some way to how he looked.

If he had been a woman, I probably would have admired the commitment and the end result before moving on. But a man doing the same thing! Shock and horror. What a waste of time! He probably would look better if he didn’t try as hard. Cue the brain explosion…

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