The Impostor Effect vs Dunning-Kruger

Date February 27, 2013

The more I think about things like the Dunning-Kruger Effect and Impostor Syndrome, the more I suspect they're sociological as opposed to psychological.

If you're unfamiliar, the Dunning-Kruger Effect is the name of a cognitive bias where people consistently rate themselves as being higher skilled than others, even (especially?) then they are decidedly not. In other words, people are nowhere near as good as they think they are.

Diametrically opposed to that is Impostor Syndrome, where people refuse to acknowledge their accomplishments and competencies.

If you're aware of both of them, you might constantly vacillate between them, occasionally thinking you're awesome, then realizing that it probably means you aren't, going back and forth like a church bell. I know nothing of this, I assure you. But the point is that I think they're almost certainly related to the people that we surround ourselves with.

Look at it like this. Suppose you stumble into photography somehow. You like taking pictures, and so you do it a lot. Over time, you start to notice that some of your pictures appeal to you more than others. You like them more, and you decide that they're better than the others, so you take more pictures like them. Over time, your portfolio grows and you begin to get to the point where almost all of the photos you take are good, in your eyes.

Thus far, there is no problem.

Suppose then, that you decide you want to start a photography business. Now, we have the beginnings of a problem. Are your photos good, or have you decided that they're good? Are they good enough to sell? You don't know. But notice through that description that I never once said that you looked at other people's photographs. You never studied Ansel Adams or any of the people that came before or after him. You didn't join a community and discuss photography. You just did it, and that's awesome. But when you start to do it professionally, there is a big change. Someone is paying you for skills, and unless you've worked to acquire those skills, you don't have them. In this case, you might not even know they exist.

The photographer in question might very well be determined to have Dunning Kruger. Not only do they not have skills, they don't know that the skills they need even exist!

Now, lets suppose you (the photographer), in the course of looking into how to start a photography business, see some pictures that catch your eye. They're kind of similar in terms of style to yours, but they're better. Way better. So you research the photographer who took those, and you dive in deep. It's like a gateway drug, and you come up for air six months later in an art museum somewhere in Brussels, and you have had a revelation. You suck.

You decide that you want to not suck any more, so you take photography classes, you join local photography groups. You take lots of pictures, you exchange stories and tips and you learn with each other. But something is wrong. The more you learn and practice, the better your pictures get, but the more you think you suck. You look at other people's photography and recognize it a being amazing when it is, in fact, amazing, but you've lost objectivity to your own work. You compare it to the masters of the art, because you now know about the masters of the art, and you realize that your skill level doesn't even come close. You might academically recognize that your pictures are far superior to what you used to take, and that even though you've placed in some photography contests in the past couple of years, you just don't stack up against everyone else and you see yourself as a failure, despite your successes.

You now have Impostor Syndrome.

These conditions are directly related to not only your skill level, but the people you surround yourselves with. My boss and I were talking the other day about how attending something like the LISA conference really does skew your perspective.

If you are a system administrator in a vacuum, irrespective of your own absolute skill level, you might think that you're very skilled compared to how you used to be (and you probably are), but when you cease to live in a vacuum and start to compare yourself against others, two things happen. First, you start to get better because you see what is possible and that other people are doing it. And second, you start to compare yourself against them as opposed to your past self.

How do you reconcile this? I'm honestly not sure. It may be an unavoidable side effect of the learning and socialization process when you start out on your own, or in a small group of similarly-skilled people. I bet the people who were the best slingshot wielders around thought they were awesome until they saw people riding horses and shooting bows and arrows.

What you CAN do is remain aware of it. All of us have cognitive biases that we can fall victim to if we aren't careful. Knowing about them is most of the battle, honestly. Just remember that you have these tendencies and try to stay objective about your accomplishments, and remain positive. No matter what your skill level is right now, it can be better in the future.

Incidentally, if you love reading and learning about cognitive biases like I do, check out the list of cognitive biases at Rational Wiki. It's eye-opening!

  • Ryan Salomon

    I think it'll help to add some color to this conundrum... supposedly these crafts we are pursuing are fun for us to do, right? Otherwise we wouldn't (or rather, shouldn't) be doing them. Given that, then that can be used as a buoy against at least the Impostor Syndrome.

    By the time Impostor Syndrome sets in, it transforms the sense of the activity being fun, into something else, more akin to competition for purpose of survival. Unless one is actually in a very urgent survival situation, it's probably healthiest to fight or positively transform this mindset. Obviously easier said than done, but worth the effort. One should always keep close to the chest the aspects of their pursuit that got them giddy in the first place!

  • Fred Woodbridge

    I think you're making a lot of logical leaps between mindsets, Matt, but I understand what you're getting at. However, I don't know if you've convinced me about the ontology of these biases being sociological as opposed to psychological mostly because I don't think those are necessarily contradictory or mutually exclusive.
    Good post.

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  • maria

    interesting post. I just had that discussion with someone. Assuming dunnin-kruger but if you know about it, can't you cheat yourself (and others)? It's still hard to distinguish -there are plenty of people who over-value their talent who are surrounded by brilliant fellows, so it can't be only who you surround yourself. (think academia..very few people are actually brilliant but many think they are). There must be more to that than acquaintance.