The Dunning–Kruger effect and you

According to Wikipedia,

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled people make poor decisions and reach erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to realize their mistakes.

The more ignorant you are about a subject, the easier it seems to you. When I was starting out as a translator, I got bitten by this more times than I like to remember.

Paper and pulp? Why not — how hard could it be? I use paper every day, and once I took a paper-making class. A survey on healthcare in Vietnam? I just had my checkup last month, and I LOVE Vietnamese food. And so on.

Even when I glanced over a document ahead of time, it seemed easy — it wasn't until I actually dug into the translation (after accepting the job, of course 😮 ) that I realized I was over my head.

As a corollary, the more we know about a subject, the more likely we are to know our limitations. For example, although I specialize in IT and telecoms, I refuse to do electronics or chip-making stuff. I know how hard that stuff is.

The problem with the Dunning–Kruger effect is that you actually believe that you can do a good job. How do you know to turn down a job when you think you can do it?

After a while, I developed a kind of sanity check when offered a job in a new field. I ask myself how long actual experts in the field study. Then I ask myself if I have studied that field long enough to duplicate their understanding.

And then for good measure, I think about all the botched translations I've seen in my fields by people who said, "Why not — I own a copy of Windows and play Minefield ALL THE TIME."

5 comments to The Dunning–Kruger effect and you

  • You should check out a series of blog posts that Errol Morris made in the NYT: the Anosognosic’s Dilemma.

    Some years ago, I translated a lot of chip fab papers, despite no formal education on the subject. I enjoyed the work a lot, but it was hard. I mentioned to my contact at the client how much trouble I was having with a particular paper, and she said “there are like 4 people in the world who really understand this stuff. Don’t feel bad.”

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  • Good point. Luckily, we are quite aware of our limitations and cheerfully refer work outside our areas of expertise to competent colleagues. You are so right, though: at first glance it might seem do-able (even though your inner voice of reason is telling you to stay away), but after digging into the text, one realizes the complexity of it and one’s own inadequacy. We’ve erred on the side of caution and perhaps turned down projects we were indeed qualified for (in closely related fields), but I prefer it that way. Running a business is tough enough without making it more complicated by going into unknown territory. That said, we are constantly evolving and exploring new related fields for our clients, and have developed new areas of expertise as a result. For instance, we work on a lot of water management-related documents in the American Southwest, and, at our client’s urging, begun work on the related field of water desalination projects — however, we already had the background in terms of water legislation, treaties, etc., so that made the entry into this new (and very narrow) field much easier. We also requested glossaries and extra research time.

  • @Judy

    Good point about stretching and growing. I often need to reach into new fields when I translate. For example, I’ve translated papers on using genetic algorithms to design energy-efficient office spaces, and computer systems to optimize the feeding of cattle. I knew nothing about architecture or cattle-raising before doing those jobs, but was able to pull through with research and support from the clients.

    I also find translations like those very interesting, although I’m not tempted at all to branch into architecture or agriculture.

  • JS

    I believe a common US idiom for the same effect is “Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread.”

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