Why do highly skilled musicians doubt they're good enough? The Dunning-Kruger Effect

How many musicians do you know who are highly skilled, yet seem to doubt their ability?

Contrast this with the hyper-confident performers who audition for the X Factor, who aren't necessarily noted for displaying high levels of skill and ability and you have a rather confusing situation.

This is what's known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

It’s a cognitive bias whereby people who are highly skilled believe they're not particularly skilled and people who are not particularly skilled believe they're highly skilled.

It was named after two psychologists, David Dunning and Justin Kruger, who conducted experiments into this phenomenon at Cornell University in 1999.

How does this work?

Let's start with the not-particularly-skilled.

Generally, the less someone knows about something, the less able they are to recognise that there's a lot they don't know.

This can pretty much happen in any area, as was illustrated by the U.S. Senator who took a snowball into the Senate to show how cold it was outside, definitively proving that the earth isn't getting warmer.

As comedian Al Murray observed, during the World Cup, every man in the country believes he has what it takes to coach England to World Cup glory.

Part of what makes someone highly skilled is being able to notice details and nuances that are imperceptible to most other people.

As the singer who auditions for the X Factor lacks the ability to do this, when she's told she doesn't actually sound that much like Beyoncé she reacts with total surprise and disbelief.

She hasn't developed the skill to hear the difference between her and Beyoncé, and the fact she cannot hear the difference is what makes her so confident that she's highly skilled.

This illusion is further reinforced when you see someone who is highly skilled at doing something, because they make it look easy.

There doesn't seem like there's much to it.

I'm always reminded how easy tennis is when I see Roger Federer winning a match without breaking into a sweat.

The musician who's highly skilled has practised and developed their skills over so many years that it does happen more and more easily, without them needing to think about it consciously anymore.

Because it is happening unconsciously, it gives them the impression they're not really doing anything. They tend to take their high level of skill for granted.

Someone only becomes so skilled in the first place by noticing increasingly finer details that they can continue improving upon in order to progress.

Because they're no longer appreciating the skills they're already demonstrating easily, and have the ability to notice anything that doesn't meet their high standards, they are usually most aware of things they're not happy with.

This is what gives them the impression that they're not that skilled.

Added to this is the fact that, when you start learning a skill, you seem to progress more quickly in the earlier stages.

If you're learning another language, once you've learned your first word, learning a second word doubles your vocabulary!

Someone who's been living aboard and speaking a foreign language fluently for ten years might only discover the word for catalytic converter when they take their car in for a service.

Learning these new words develops their working knowledge of the language by only a very small percentage, even though they are at a much higher level of skill than the beginner.

The more advanced you are at a particular skill, the more difficult it can be to notice your continuing successful progress.

People also have a tendency to believe that others see them the way they see themselves. As a result, highly skilled performers who doubt their ability often worry they will be 'Found out'.

One well-known director wrote that, when starting rehearsals for a new role actress, Dame Judi Dench always leaves her bag and coat by the door in case she decides she's not up to it and wants to leave quickly.

I once mentioned the Dunning-Kruger Effect to an Olympic athlete I was working with who replied, 'Yep. I think I'm a bit like the X Factor contestant really.'

I rest my case.

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© Mike Cunningham 2017

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