As we know ...

“… as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” – Donald Rumsfeld

In B.C. the provincial real estate council places a heavy burden of responsibility for an agent’s actions on the shoulders of the agent’s managing broker. Given the numerous valleys of grey amongst the mountaintops of success, it is a difficult mandate to help agents navigate through the unknowns. It is particularly tough when an agent has just enough knowledge to allow their brains to build confidence in their actions, but not enough knowledge to truly be competent in the field.

I have heard it said that the first phase in any new vocation or skill is that of “unconscious incompetence”. The provincial real estate councils across the country do a relatively good job helping new real estate licensees understand their short-comings in terms of their knowledge base in the profession. They move them into that more uncomfortable phase of having “conscious incompetence”. However, Rumsfeld’s mysterious shroud of not knowing what we don’t know is something that impacts on both the seasoned professional and the novice.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is the name for the blind confidence the brain gives an individual who fails to understand that they truly don’t know something. It is a cognitive bias that creates an inability to recognize personal short comings. It’s the effect of the brain reaching its limit of self-analysis and thereby creating the sense of confidence to plough forward.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is named after David Dunning and Justin Kruger of the Department of Psychology at Cornell University. They conducted a series of experiments to study this phenomenon. Their findings shine a light on the fact that our understanding of things is highly subjective and that we can fool ourselves into beliefs and prejudices that are inaccurate.

This inability to recognize one’s own inadequate knowledge or ability also brings along some other traits in the process. The unconsciously incompetent tend to overestimate their own level of skill, they fail to recognize genuine skill in others and will only recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill once they are exposed to training in that area.

Although the Dunning-Kruger effect was first published as a study in 1999, throughout history writers and philosophers have made similar general observations of this very human trait. The book of Proverbs states: “Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool.” Confucius put it this way: “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” Even Darwin has been quoted on the subject, stating, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

Interestingly, when someone speaks with confidence, the majority of people find it easier to accept information as fact than when one speaks tentatively. However, the Dunning-Kruger effect suggests that those with inadequate knowledge have a self-induced sense of confidence because they have a cognitive inability to understand that they are or might be wrong.

An analysis of experts and pendants in the media showed that in most cases their comments were inaccurate or just plain wrong. However, because these individuals were able to speak with confident bravado (and in sound-bites) they receive the media exposure. How often have world leaders in history been wrong and led their countries in directions that time has proven to be damaging? No one, including monarchs, judges or politicians, is totally immune to the Dunning-Kruger effect.

If you are in a situation where you are thinking, ‘how can this person be so wrong’, and you are totally confident that you are right…take a serious and reflective moment to consider that perhaps you, not the other person, might be experiencing the Dunning-Kruger effect. Benjamin Franklin had a wonderful way of freeing the brain from its unknown biases. He would take a sheet of paper and on one side list all the positive reasons for a decision or a potential action and then on the other side of the paper he would list all of the reasons against it. If it is a list written openly and honestly, then the correct position will reveal itself. However, you have to be willing to accept the outcome, even when it reveals that your own bias could be wrong.

In the extremely complex business of real estate, it is imperative that REALTORS® and Brokers be wary of the ways the human brain can fool itself into a false sense of confidence or righteousness. Never forget to speak to bona fide experts and do research to uncover those areas of “unknown unknowns”.

“We see the world, not as it is, but as we are – or, as we are conditioned to see it. When we open our mouths to describe what we see, we in effect describe ourselves, our perceptions, our paradigms.” – Stephen R. Covey.

Our lives and our individual experiences have equipped all of us with lovely rose-tinted glasses. If you understand that you are wearing them, the better part of the battle of becoming competent at the highest level is being won.

May 3 2016