… or, How My Brain Came to Deeply Appreciate the Dunning-Kruger Effect
“All things, animate and inanimate, have within them a spirit dimension. They communicate in that dimension to those who can listen.” ~ Jerome Bernstein
Shortly after I graduated with my doctorate in psychology, I decided I wanted to give something back to my small, private school. I’d been working for a dozen years as a grief counselor and trainer to fulfill part of my clinical graduate requirements and I knew firsthand from co-facilitating dozens of volunteer trainings that simply listening with little else added is a very challenging endeavor. While listening depends on our ears working well, just because we can hear doesn’t mean we listen. We all know people whose ears work perfectly, but who don’t listen skillfully at all. There are also people who don’t hear well and listen fiercely. In part, there are structural, brain-based reasons for that. And some of the difficulty results from differing rates at which the brain processes speech, hearing and thought. Those rates can often end up in conflict with one another. They can also be radically sculpted and modulated with training.
I also knew that if I really wanted to increase my own sculpted capacity for skillful listening, one way to accomplish that was to teach the skills to others – to benefit from The Protégé Effect. So I did. I designed a course and brought it to the school’s curriculum committee. After considerable wavering, they agreed to give the class a trial run. It was 10 three-hour sessions filled with all kinds of activities, practices and experiential presentations. I had a great time. And apparently the students did as well: When the class was over and the ratings were in, the class rated 4.9 out of a possible 5.0. I think they gave me that high rating not just for the exercises and activities and modeling I presented, but mostly because they discovered what a creative act it could be to reclaim what communications professor Mike Nichols calls, “The Lost Art of Listening.” There’s far more to listening than meets the ear.
So, of course the school decided that such a class would never be offered again! When I inquired into the reasoning, the responses I got were, “Well, listening’s not important enough to devote 30 hours of training to!” “and besides, we cover the essentials in a number of our other clinical classes,” and “most people accepted into the program are already above-average listeners.”
Which brings us to The Dunning-Kruger Effect…
In 1999 David Dunning and Justin Kruger, two Cornell research psychologists, published a paper entitled: “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Leads to Inflated Self-Assessments.“ That paper detailed a series of four studies showing that, in certain cases, people who are very bad at something think they are actually above average. In other words, many people are nescient when it comes to self-assessment. That is, they don’t know what they don’t know.
This effect has been replicated among undergraduates completing a classroom exam (Dunning, Johnson, Ehrlinger, & Kruger, 2003), medical students assessing their interviewing skills (Hodges, Regehr, & Martin, 2001) clerks evaluating their work performance (Edwards, Kellner, Sistrom, & Magyari, 2003), and medical lab technicians evaluating their on-the-job expertise (Haun, Zeringue, Leach, & Foley, 2000). I’m guessing psychotherapists, parents, priests and other paid listening professionals would not be especially immune to this effect.
The good news is that not knowing that you don’t know something is not a crime. And, as David Dunning himself has said, the take-away is that “one should pause to worry about one’s own level of certainty, not the certainty of others.” And then go and do the work of bringing knowledge and skill to your own ignorance.
So, how to know if your therapist is an above-average listener? A. Don’t ask them! And B. Become one yourself and then you’ll have a solid benchmark to accurately measure against.