What is The Dunning Kruger Effect (protect yourself from shady advice)

What is the Dunning-Kruger effect?  Well, the internet is awash with rubbish information delivered by people who are absolutely sure of what they are talking about.  Whats wrong though in believing something you read, or following advice that is delivered confidently and with certainty in an online pet forum?

Well, in this article I discuss why not knowing what you don't know can result in ridiculous confidence and just how you can protect yourself from following terrible advice.


The Dunning-Kruger is named after 2 psychologists and goes something like this:

What is the Dunning Kruger effect?

If someone knows nothing about a topic they are generally aware they know nothing.  They won't try and pretend otherwise and they certainly won't have strong opinions or views on the subject.

Things quickly get pretty interesting as some learning takes place.

Ignorant experts

You've probably heard the phrase that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.  Well, as someone starts to learn about a topic, the amount they think they know about it climbs at an exponential rate.  In fact, after gaining only a small amount of information (relatively to the total amount there is to know about that subject), many people start to consider themselves as pretty much experts.

Graph to show the ignorent expert and the dunning-kruger effect

We've probably all been there to a certain degree.  We learn a couple of basic principles and all of a sudden think that we've got the topic cracked.  Alternatively we start to learn a new skill and after a short time of practice start to feel pretty confident in our ability.

Now how certain you are of your knowledge or ability probably depends a lot on your personality.  It is this group though that often post and comment prolifically in facebook groups and online forums.  Not only do they post a lot, which in itself is fine, but they are also brimming with confidence and are quick to argue or even ridicule anyone who dares contradict or question their viewpoint.

They will also take pride in the fact that they are completely self-taught and will compare their knowledge to people who are recognised experts in the field.

You'll have come across these people many times.  Their favorite phrases might be "do your own research", "don’t be brainwashed".  I've even been told to take my head out of the sand when I dared question someones assertion that chocolate is not in fact poisonous to dogs.  It never occurs to these people that "doing your own research" by reading the first page that agrees with your point of view in a google search is not a substitute for actually studying the topic at length over many years.

These people simply don't know what they don't know.  This is the Dunning Kruger effect.

Of course, people can and do become experts in a field through self study and personal development. But I would suggest the way these people communicate is very different from our ignorant "experts".

With more learning comes uncertainty and doubt

The graph continues if they actually continue to learn about the subject properly.  They come to realize how much more there is to know.  They realize that there is more to the topic than they first thought.  As a result, their perception of their own expert status plummets.  In fact, our former experts opinion of their own knowledge levels almost drops back to zero.  The previous confidence is replaced by a feeling that they are never going to get to grips with the subject.

as learning continues our expert realises there is more to the subject than they thought
as knowledge grown there is the thought they will never get to grips with things

It is then a slow and steady climb back up to the giddy heights of expert status.  Things start to make sense again.  Slowly but surely experts start to appreciate that they do know a lot yet at the same time will aknowlege that things are complicated.  Even then though at true expert level, many actual experts end up actually selling themselves short.

They still feel they know less than the self appointed experts with very little knowledge.  In a lot of cases this may be due to imposter syndrome which is something I talked about in a guest video on The Rewired Soul mental health YouTube channel (and I'll state now I'm NOT a mental health expert!).

the information slowly starts making sense
graph to show that even the true experts do not think they know as much as the dunning kruger effect experts!

So that is what the Dunning Kruger effect is.  How though can you protect yourself from advice given by "ignorant experts" on facebook forums, internet groups and blog posts and instead recognize true expert advice.

How to know if you can trust online advice

To answer this I'd encourage you to take a look at the website trustortrash.org which guides you through a number of questions in 3 main groups to help you decide if you should trust what you are reading in a pet forum (or anywhere else online, in print or even in the flesh) or not.

First up is the question: who said it?

You should think about trusting the source if the authors name, background and experience levels (assuming they have experience in what is being discussed!) are easy to find.  Also if they appear to be well respected then that is an encouraging sign

On the other hand, if you cant find who wrote something, or if you know their name but little else, disregarding the information may be safer

Tied to this is the question of where the information came from.  Are the sources listed or hidden?  Do the sources have experience in the area being discussed and do they have a commercial element to them?

The second question to consider is when was the information given?

With pet health care, some areas of our knowledge, understanding and best practices are changing pretty quickly.  Information delivered 10 yours ago may not be as up to date as that given in the last 6 months.  This is not true in cases by any means but if information seems out of date compared to other things you have read then it probably is.

The final question to think about when it comes to separating the good from the bad is how do they know.  Is it based on multiple sources of information or is it instead based on information based on opinion or personal experience of a single person or minority within their field?

And lastly does the information seem reasonable.  Does it make sense based on everything you've read and understand?  Does it actually seem too good to be true or too simplified?

Always double or triple check online advice

So these are all questions you can ask yourself to stop you getting taken for a ride by someone suffering from the Dunning Kruger effect.  They are most likely only trying to help but remember, they simply don't know what they don't know.  Now, if one answer suggests you should not trust the information, it doesn't mean you should instantly disregard it.  It just means you should keep in mind there might be an issue and take it as a single piece of the puzzle to find the answer or advice you are looking for.

I have said it before, you should always double and triple check anything you read online, about any topic.  while I would love to say that my articles are the only thing you need to read about any topic I have written on that would be ridiculous.  You should go to other sites to corroborate what I say (but come back again!).  You should definitely rate the advice of your pets personal vet above all other sources.  They are the only ones who have had a proper consultation with you, who have examined your pet as well as ordered and interpreted any test results in relation to your pet specifically.

We don't know each other personally and I have never examined your pet.  Something you read may give you a talking point to explore with your vet the best way to go about managing the health or illness of your dog or cat.  It should definitely not result in you rejecting everything your vet has told you if what is written is the complete opposite.  Bodies and organs are incredibly complex and what is right for one pet may be completely wrong for another.

Having a personal vet you can trust is one of the most important relationships you will have in respect to optimizing and maintaining your pets health.

Take care out there and remember anyone can write anything online.

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