Experiments published in 1999 by Cornell University researchers David Dunning and Justin Kruger showed that unskilled individuals tended to rate their competence higher than average. The researchers figured the ignorance of standards of performance was behind a great deal of incompetence in a wide range of activities — reading, grammar, geography, driving a car, playing tennis. They also found that competent people often underestimated their prowess because they falsely assumed that others have an equivalent understanding of their processes and problems. For a given skill, Dunning-Kruger proposed that incompetent people will tend to overestimate their own level of skill, fail to recognize genuine skill in others, and fail to recognize the extreme nature of their own shortcomings. The partial good news is that some incompetent students improved their ability to estimate their rank after minimal tutoring, even though they may not have actually improved.
In art workshops and mentoring sessions, I’ve noticed a few beginning artists who are impaled on Dunning-Kruger. One of the main reasons, in my observation, is the vast amount of incompetent work out there that is touted as either interesting or valuable. Because of this situation, art schools are rampant with cynicism and despair. Confused, the beginning student may think that good enough is good enough, it’s all a mug’s game, and the only thing that’s important is some form of self-expression. In comparison, in the game of tennis, results are measurable, and folks will pay to watch only the top pros. Not being Novak Djokovic is no joke. When I was a kid, the only one to stick around and watch my serves was my dad. I thought I was pretty good, and I told him, but that was when he decided to find me an art teacher.
In art schools and out, many beginning students are defying the Dunning-Kruger effect. In my experience they’re mainly loners, hard workers and networkers who believe study and private application lead to quality. These same beginners are the ones who will become the competent artists of tomorrow. And they will always question their own competence.
PS: “The miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.” (David Dunning and Justin Kruger)
Esoterica: The Dunning–Kruger research was done in the USA where over-confidence, fashionable optimism and hubris might have played a part. Further studies with East Asians showed opposite results. Asian incompetents knew they were doing poor work and took it as an opportunity to improve and to get along with others. These attitudes are deep-rooted in Asian cultures. “Real knowledge,” said Confucius, “is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” On a wider scale, the Dunning-Kruger effect has been with us since the dawn of mankind and knows little of national borders. “The Foole doth thinke he is wise, but the wiseman knowes himselfe to be a Foole.” (William Shakespeare, As You Like It, 1599)
This letter was originally published as “The Dunning-Kruger Effect” on September 27, 2013.
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“‘Tis skill, not strength, that governs a ship.” (Thomas Fuller)
Painting is my passion and joy. My process is intuitive, though informed by good composition and design principles. I paint what I remember, or think about, or feel, or just what comes off my hands to the brush to the canvas. Texture and color are of primary importance to me. I typically choose my support, texture it, select my palette, and go. There is nothing more satisfying to me than watching paint run and move. I love the surprises. I experiment and learn constantly. It is a remarkable journey. One I am pleased to share with you.