The Dunning-Kruger Effect

As some of you know I have a background in science and for many years I was a researcher in the study of fetal physiology and birth before becoming a professional horse trainer. I tell you this because it explains why I have come under fire in the past when taking a stand against certain principles and practices used often in horsemanship.


Following my post about problems that I often see in liberty training (posted Dec 21), I received a few comments from a couple of people chastising me for being critical of certain approaches to liberty training without naming any trainers that practice those methods. My critics were not concerned by what I said, just that I didn’t point fingers at anybody.


I do get criticized from time to time for both mentioning the names of other professional horse people and other times for abstaining from mentioning names. It seems I can’t satisfy everybody.


But mostly the main thrust of criticism I receive is not in regard to the meat of my posts – the subject and the views on horsemanship. I get very few negative responses to the principles and philosophy I state on this page. By far the major subject of criticism I receive is in regard to any negativity I express of other methods and other principles. It’s always taken as a personal affront to those people who practice and teach those methods and principles. In comparison, criticisms of the logic of my argument are relatively rare. It appears people are less concerned by what I say and more concerned by how I say it.


I have been fighting against the pressure to be politically correct. I continue to try to be analytical in my criticisms of the horsemanship I don’t agree with. I didn’t really think this was a problem and have been puzzled by the condemnation I receive. Then it hit me very recently. I think I now know why there is a gap between what I see is the purpose of my essays and what some others see.


I worked for a long time as a scientist. Science is never stationary. It is always moving forward. It is always evolving. The thing about science that makes this possible is that as scientists we are always examining and re-examining our work and our work is always being examined and tested by other scientists. Our work is constantly open to scrutiny. There is no political correctness designed to protect a person’s feelings. There is no sense that a person’s work should not be pulled apart and rigorously tested in case somebody gets upset. Part of the contract a scientist makes with the world of science is to accept that other scientists are going to work hard to prove you wrong and then tell the world about it. It happens at grant interviews, it happens at conferences, it happens at laboratory meetings and it happens when you submit a manuscript for publication. It is a huge part of the job and it is important because without that constant and harsh review process science would grind to a halt – knowledge would grind to a halt. Scientists see this as normal and okay, and even necessary. But many non-scientists, “horse world” people see this as unprofessional, rude, offensive, inappropriate and even divisive.


Three or four years ago I was watching a well-known Australia trainer teach a clinic. I had hoped to be incognito, but the partner of the clinician recognized me somehow and came to speak to me. During the conversation, they said to me something like, “I think it is important we all (meaning horse professionals) support each other and try not to be critical.” I just nodded my head because it seemed the right thing to do in that moment. But I totally disagree.


I see a big part of my job is to strive to be a better horse person and to better the knowledge and understanding of people who want to learn from me. If that means in order to achieve that I need to explain to my students what I see is wrong with some practices and how I would make improvements, then that’s where my priorities lay. I don’t see my job as supporting and protecting the teachings of those I believe are heading in the wrong direction. My job, as I see it, is to be an advocate for the horse, not an advocate for the livelihood of horse professionals whose work I don’t believe in.


But I want to be clear that a criticism of a principle or method is not a criticism of a person who uses it. Nor is it a suggestion that they are not talented horse people. Most professionals are talented horse people and it would be extremely hard to find any that have no positive merit to their work. And even the best of the best are not as good as they could be. – even they will admit to that.


This brings me to the Dunning-Kruger effect. Dave Dunning and Justin Kruger are American social psychologists and researchers who spent many years establishing a principle that says, “the more incompetent a person is the less incompetent they think they are.” It basically means that the less we know the less we know we know. But conversely the more we know the more likely we are to realize how much we don’t know.


One side effect of this is that we are always self-assessing inaccurately. We hide our imperfections from ourselves, so we need experts outside of our sphere to help keep our self-evaluation accurate. Our imperfections stop us seeing our imperfections. No matter how smart you are everybody will fall victim to the Dunning Kruger effect because we are all going to have areas of ignorance and incompetents that are outside our ability to see. 


Therefore, the people best suited to evaluate and analyze the ideas of expert horse people are other expert horse people. Just like in the science world other expert scientists do the evaluating and testing of other scientist’s work, so too we need expert horse people to test and evaluate other horse people’s ideas.


It should be encouraged and applauded, not criticized and shrouded with howls of “unprofessionalism”.  And professionals like me should welcome scrutiny and public discourse of our ideas and methods. Nobody should hide behind political correctness. To do so runs the risk that horsemanship will stagnate and not evolve beyond what we know now - cheating both horses and people from having the relationship one day (or decade or lifetime) we all hope but never dream could be possible.


I’ll keep taking the hits of scorn and ridicule because Isaac Asimov  (science fiction writer and biochemist, 1920 - 1992) once said that great discoveries were not accompanied by words like “Eureka”, but by words like “Hmm, that’s interesting.” That’s why I want all of us to keep evaluating and critically analyzing what we believe we know and what others tell us they believe they know. I want every horse person to experience that moment when their horse does something unexpected and they think to themselves, “Hmm, that’s interesting”.

Photo: David Dunning (L) and Justin Kruger (R) published their seminal work in 199.  Kruger, J; Dunning, D (December 1999). "Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 77 (6): 1121–34

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