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Why We Suck, And How To Fix That

April 17, 2015

The Foole doth thinke he is wise, but the wiseman knowes himselfe to be a Foole.” –William Shakespeare

In 1999, Cornell University Department of Psychology professor, David Dunning, and a graduate student, Justin Kruger, published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, that was titled, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” The effect they described has subsequently come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This Effect plays a vital role in the preparedness community, even though most people are completely unaware of its existence.

Incompetent people do not recognize—scratch that, cannot recognize—just how incompetent they are…” –David Dunning

There are numerous possible causes of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. The most obvious is simple ego. No one wants to think of himself as a complete fucking retard, or even simply as being below-average. Thus, we tend to inflate our own self-assessments. We also tend to be judgmental pricks, so it is easier to recognize ignorance and incompetence in someone else, reinforcing the illusion that we are above average.

As Dr. Dunning pointed out in an article last year, for Pacific-Standard, “We Are All Confident Idiots,” however, the core case of the Effect is simple damned ignorance. “An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that is filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the feel of useful and accurate knowledge.”

This false “knowledge,” predicated on irrelevant—or even simply misinterpreted—experience and education, leads to confirmation bias of the worst sort. We have “life experience” so we must know what the fuck we are talking about, right? We’re professionally educated, so we must “know,” right? Well…maybe…

The problem is, too often, if one or two experiences appear to confirm our beliefs, we then rest easy in our confident knowledge, and cease to continue pushing. We’ve done “XXX” so we don’t need to keep training and pushing ourselves. This is why we see “experts” in “XYZ” set of skills in the preparedness world, despite a complete lack of credible experience or education, and demonstrably false lessons being taught as “gospel,” even in the face of contradictory evidence. This is why we see guys in the training industry teaching the same TTP they learned twenty or thirty years ago, who have refused to adapt and modify their knowledge base, despite contradictory evidence from more recent, more widespread experience.

In “gun talk,” this is the “unconscious incompetence” level of learning. We just don’t know what we don’t know. We’re so ignorant, we cannot even recognize that we are ignorant.

Before someone jumps in with, “But, John, you’re an arrogant prick yourself! You’re always talking shit about our training!” You’re right. I am—in no way, shape, or form—immune to the Dunning-Kruger Effect. NO ONE IS IMMUNE! Even Dr. Dunning admits that he is not immune to it.

However, there are ways to overcome it, assuming we are not willing to rest on our laurels, and believe we somehow have all the answers, and do not need to continue seeking. One of these methods is learning accurate self-assessment. We need to develop the ability to clearly see—and actually appreciate—what we do not know.

One of these is the establishment of standards of performance. If I set the IDPA Classifier in front of you, as a standard metric for performance with a concealed-carry pistol, and tell you, “The standard is to classify ‘Master,’” then you have a standard metric to test yourself against. If you cannot achieve that (it’s actually not particularly difficult to achieve. I did it a few weeks ago, and was fishing for my spare magazine in a cargo pocket, instead of a belt-mounted mag pouch…). If I tell you, “The standard for rifles is to be able to hit a C-Zone steel silhouette, from the standing, at 100 meters, in less than 1.5 seconds,” then you have a quantifiable standard to attain.

This leaves no room for argument, or self-delusion. You can either achieve the standard, or you cannot. It’s all very black-and-white. This is nice, because as Americans, we tend to appreciate things that are black-and-white. Grays are too nebulous for our comfort.

The problem of the Dunning-Kruger Effect still rears its ugly head though, in the establishment of those standards. What defines an acceptable performance metric? Someone who served in Iraq, was never in a gunfight outside of one of the metropolitan areas of that country, and never saw the opportunity to make a shot on a bad guy, past 100 meters, may consider 100 meters to be an acceptable standard of performance. At the same time, there are a lot of papers coming out of the Army War College, with Afghanistan veteran officers, many with competitive marksmanship backgrounds as well, who are positing that anything less than everyone being able to shoot at 500 meters, is an unacceptably low standard.

Lots of trainers in the civilian world think that anything beyond 7-10 meters, with a carbine or pistol, is unrealistic for the civilian gun owner, training in the “home defense carbine.” The very establishment of standards of performance is just as fraught with the dangers of Dunning-Kruger Effect as not having standards is.

The same applies to physical training, combatives, land navigation, and more. We have to determine a base metric for “acceptable” levels of skill, but we need to recognize that even those may be inadequate.

The solution is critical thinking. We need to be able to apply logic and empiricism, correctly, and predicate our conclusions on humility (trust me, humility is NOT one of my virtues, I get it, this is HARD!). In short, we need to be skeptical, certainly of what someone else publishes, but mostly, of ourselves and our conclusions and abilities.

Accurate, objective self-assessment can be developed, but it requires work and humility. Instead of assuming that what we know is “Truth,” we can accept that it was “true” within a specific, limited context. Even then however, our “knowledge” and “expertise” may be grounded in false knowledge.

Using the example of the 100 meters standard in Iraq, we can see this is the case. There have been dozens of cases of shooters—and not just snipers, but common riflemen—making shots in excess of 500 meters, even in urban environments. The longest 7.62x51mm sniper shot ever, was taken at almost 1200 meters in an urban environment in Iraq. So, the “authority of experience” of someone who never even saw anyone take a shot past 100 meters there, and thus claims, “you don’t need to train for shots past 50/100/200/etc meters, in an urban environment,” is automatically suspect, isn’t it?

At the same time, the standard answer of “well, I can hit a silhouette at 500 meters, so I’m a ‘rifleman!’” is equally suspect, since a) 500 meters is considerably less than 1200 meters, and b) most fights still happen at considerably less than 500 meters, but at extremely fast speeds.

At a recent local training event, someone asked me how important the 3-5 second rush was, and if it would really hurt anything if they took a couple extra seconds getting to their next position. To answer them, we set the timer up. At 100 meters, from the standing, a couple of us managed to smoke a hit to a C-Zone steel silhouette, in less than one second. Would it have taken us longer if the target had been moving? Maybe. How much longer, though? Twice as long? Three times as long? Of course, I wouldn’t have to hit the C-Zone, either. Any hit on them would have at least slowed them down a step, allowing me a follow-up shot. So, maybe it would have taken the same amount of time—or even less—since we’d have been shooting at a larger target.

The 3-5 second rush was developed, because it was predicated on the idea that it would take some period of time for the enemy to notice you were moving, then they’d have to acquire a sight picture, before finally breaking the shot. Hopefully, by then, you would be back on the ground, behind cover, making their shot “wasted.”

So, what relevance does the Dunning-Kruger Effect have on our training for preparedness security operations?

Number One, assume that what you know is wrong, or at least, incomplete. Continue seeking new knowledge, and improving your frame-of-reference, by making it more broad.

At the same time, question the frame-of-reference of the people you’re getting your information from. Is their experience and knowledge base relevant to your needs? Do you have the support assets they have/had, when they developed their knowledge base? Do you need to modify their approach, based on these differences? Do you really, or is that your cognitive bias and/or laziness speaking?

Number Two, assume that whatever performance standard you develop will be a MINIMUM standard. You’re not the only guy out there trying to get better, and become more dangerous. Once you’ve achieved a MINIMUM standard, raise the bar of performance. DO NOT EVER SETTLE!

I’ll give you a couple examples from my personal recent experience.

I’ve long assumed I was moderately good with my carbine, and with my pistol. I mean, shit, I was an SOF soldier for the better part of a decade. I’ve been shot at, and I’ve shot people. Shit, I’m good to go. In the interest of not succumbing to Dunning-Kruger Effect and my own experiential cognitive biases however, I decided to set up some performance metrics to test myself and those with whom I train regularly. We decided to run some basic tests at the rifle range and at the pistol range.

For rifle, we looked at the 3-5 second rush. We operated off the assumption that anyone we would have to fight would a) NOT be a fucking idiot, and b) would be at least as well trained as the average US infantryman. For a minimum standard, we decided that, out to 200 meters, regardless of the firing position you needed to use, to get hits at the given range (we tested at 50, 75, 100, and 200 meters), you needed to be able—at a MINIMUM—to get a hit within 5 seconds. It didn’t matter if you were firing a single shot, or dumping half your magazine: as long as you got a hit within five seconds, we would score it a “go.”

Within two iterations, even our slowest people were scoring their hits in under three seconds. More than one were getting hits in less than two seconds, even at 200 meters. We lowered the time standard, and said, “Okay, you should be able to get a hit on steel in less than three seconds.” We didn’t settle for the easily achievable, even though that was our initial “standard.” Pretty soon, at any distance from 0-100 meters, EVERYONE was getting hits in less than two seconds. Several were scoring their first hit in less than 1.5 seconds, and three or four of us were getting hits in less than one second. Guess what?

The performance standard got lowered again. Now, we have a standard of “you need to be able to get a hit, from your rifle, on a C-Zone steel silhouette targets, in less than 1.0 seconds, at any distance from 0-100 meters.” For those that couldn’t do that yet, they have a measurable, quantifiable performance metric to try and achieve. For those that already managed it? They have a base standard to maintain, and we’ll be pushing to drop that standard below 0.75 seconds, and then 0.5 seconds, while simultaneously reducing the size of the acceptable target zone.

Obviously, that’s just one aspect of the performance standard for rifle, but it’s a challenging one. Hitting that single hit in less than one second also allowed us to get hits on two separate targets in less than two seconds, at 50 meters. How dangerous does that make you? How fast can the other guy get his weapon into the fight at 50 meters? What about his buddy? Is he training to the same “elite” standard, or is he accepting some “standard” he read on the Internet somewhere, developed twenty years ago, that says a single hit at 50 meters in two seconds, is adequate?

For pistols, we used a two-part qualification. We used the current FBI Qualification and the IDPA Classifier, both with modifications to make them more accuracy focused, while still insisting on the time standards. Here’s a newsflash for you: lots of people can pass the FBI Qualification, as written, and LOTS of people can achieve Master on the IDPA Classifier (seriously, if I can do it, ANYONE can do it!). If you’re not shooting AT LEAST, to that level, then you’re not trained, regardless of what you think.

PT is a deceased equine that I like to take a Louisville Slugger to, regularly. Is part of it that I enjoy doing PT? Sure. I like throwing heavy iron around. I like folding the heavy bag in half with punch after punch. More importantly though, I know there are guys out there who lift more than I do, and run faster than I do. There are guys out there who make my level of shooting ability look like a kid in 1992 playing Duck Hunter on Nintendo. I do PT—hard and heavy—because I need to level that playing field, as much as possible. If they can lift more than me, and/or run faster than me, then I need to be able to outshoot them. If they can outshoot me, I’d better be able to outrun them. If they are faster than me, stronger than me, and can shoot faster than me? Well, I’m fucked, but you can bet, I’m going to do my damnedest to keep trying to catch up and surpass them.

Nature doesn’t give a shit—and neither does the enemy—that I’m forty damned years old, have lots of obligations competing for my limited time, and struggle with being a lazy piece-of-shit. If I’m going to be able to protect my wife and kids, I HAVE to make time to meet the standards, and then to drive past though standards, and set tougher ones to achieve.

It doesn’t matter if I met the standards this week. All that matters is I’m better today than I was yesterday, and that I’ll be better tomorrow than I am today. Set your standards, and then blow those cocksuckers out of the water, by pushing past them.

Or, go be a pussy, but do that somewhere else.

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  1. Mervo permalink

    Dunning and Krueger =
    Don’t know what you don’t know OR DK Y DK (pronounced “dick why dick?”)
    We use this acronym every day at work.
    Goes well with the research of Noel Burch (sp?) who talks about the 4 stages of learning. Unconsciously incompetent (DK y DK), consciously incompetent (KNOW what you dont know) , consciously competent, unconsciously competent.

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