November 21, 2019

How to Avoid Climbing Up Mount Stupid
or Into The Fraudster's Cave

We look at the relationship between knowledgeability and confidence, including the pitfalls of both overestimating and underestimating ourselves. We look at the risk of climbing up Mount Stupid and climbing into The Fraudster’s Cavern.

Mount Stupid and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Often charts that feature Mount Stupid place “knowledge” or “experience” of a given topic on the horizontal X-axis and “confidence” or “self-perception of competence” on the vertical Y-axis. Mount Stupid is an anomalous region of the graph where the Y-axis is a lot higher relative to the X-axis. In short, it’s a peak where people are overconfident in their competence despite lacking significant experience or expertise. Webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal also frames the chart around the “willingness to opine on a topic” against actual knowledge of said topic.

The chart featuring Mount Stupid is often used to illustrate the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which is a cognitive bias where people lack the self-awareness to realize their overconfidence in their cognitive ability. It was originally described by social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger in 1999, who also studied the effect’s prevalence in different cultures.

The Fraudster’s Cavern and Imposter Syndrome

Charts that include Mount Stupid often depict the “land” that follows as an upwards curving line that implies exponentially increasing confidence as expertise rises. But these charts don’t include another anomaly, one that accounts for a related if not opposite phenomena of the Dunning-Kruger Effect: Imposter Syndrome. The term “impostor phenomenon” first appeared in 1978 in “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention,” an article by Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes.

Imposter Syndrome is another common bias where highly competent people who are externally recognized as such incorrectly believe their success has been achieved by pure luck or by perpetually deceiving (or defrauding) others into overestimating their competence. In short, they’ve only been “faking it ‘till they make it.”

For the sake of our graph, we’ve put this anomaly near the far right side of the graph where it can potentially pop up. In keeping with topographical metaphors, we’ve called this The Fraudster’s Cavern to illustrate how those with Imposter Syndrome underestimate their competence and thus may also be a lot less willing to opine about it.

The Culture Factor

In later studies, the prevalence of both the Dunning-Kruger Effect and Imposter Syndrome (and their associated “symptoms”) was shown to differ by culture.

Depending on what our given society emphasizes, be it a high level of self-esteem or self-criticism, these values have the potential to influence individual tendencies and actions, such as whether repeated failure leads to self-directed improvement or moving onto other things.

Independent of the cultures we grew up in or are influenced by, it also goes without saying that everyone and anyone is vulnerable to barking up Mount Stupid or slipping into The Fraudster’s Cavern at some point in time — even if we don’t suffer from something that pervades our lives longterm such as the Dunning-Kruger Effect (or the opposite known as the Jonah Complex, which involves avoiding applying one’s talents).

The Takeaway

It’s not hard to see how these two tendencies can crop up in the world of creatives. Certainly, creatives are no strangers to the sense of self-doubt, but against a cultural background that often encourages or forces us to have an opinion on a variety of topics, there is always value in admitting you don’t have all the answers — yet.

We’re at the point where the speed at which we absorb information far exceeds the time we commit to mulling over, challenging and consolidating that information, must less our perspective on it. As a result, it’s not hard to see why we risk unwittingly becoming mountaineers or spelunkers. The keys to solving these? Seeking out quality feedback from honest peers and being willing to take constructive criticism well.

With every achievement, comes the belief that you need to reassess where the next goal or peak lies, should you aim to dedicate time and resources towards improvement. While we agree that life itself changes dynamically in the face of a goal, there’s often a lot of additional baggage with the relentless pursuit of goals. It’s perhaps an oversimplification of the belief that at some point, you have to come to terms with how your life looks and how your relationships play out in the face of “growth.”

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