Intelligent, but don’t you just not know it

Graduating Imperial students

Thick as pig sh*t, according to themselves anyway

We all know the type. They moan and moan how poorly the exam went, and come the day of results, they’re jumping for joy with their 1st. At Imperial, I have very rarely come out of an exam and found anybody that was confident enough to state they thought the paper was easy. Annoyingly, it has made it considerably harder to gauge how difficult the exam actually was and whether my genuine struggle to answer some of the questions was actually shared with my under-estimating peers.

Is it just modesty? In a way, yes. The intellectual dynamic at a university like Imperial College, where intelligence is prevalent across the board, suffers from a cognitive bias known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Even before Justin Kruger and David Dunning’s 1999 paper, Bertrand Russell, the English mathematician and philosopher noted this effect in society.

“One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.”

The Ig Nobel prize-winning study concludes that the unskilled and less intelligent lack the self-assessment skills to accurately judge their abilities relative to other people. In other words, ignorance truly is bliss. A series of tests in humour, grammar and logic yielded interesting results. Those who scored in the bottom percentile grossly overestimated their ability as ‘above average’.

Although subsequent papers focus on the illusory superiority of the less able, Imperial suffers from widespread illusory inferiority, i.e. the brighter students falsely believe themselves to be at an equal or worse understanding than their peers.

Whilst the less intelligent fail in self-assessment, the more intelligent fail in assessment of others.

The disparity between actual ability and perceived ability is larger in the ‘overestimating less intelligent’ than it is in the ‘underestimating more intelligent’, but this still creates a sometimes bewildering social dynamic at Imperial. I sometimes find it hard to believe that many of the most incredibly bright students lack the confidence to even admit they’re doing well for themselves. Although it would be rash to count out modestly entirely, talking to these people at length reveals they truly believe their inadequacies prevail amongst the multitude of wisdom they obviously possess.

I have found it rare to notice someone on the other end of this miscalibration (a less intelligent person grossly overstating their ability): partly because there is a base line of intelligence required to be at Imperial College, but also those who are confident enough to speak up in lectures to demonstrate their knowledge (you know who you are, Captain Questions) are probably anomalies to the Dunning-Kruger effect.

It is not hard to see why this culture of modesty and underestimation exists at Imperial. A friend described Imperial students as “insecure overachievers”. He was on point. Prior to entering the not-so-hallowed gates of Imperial College, everyone was happily sitting pretty at the top of their classes in school. Aggregating the nation’s straight-A students into one institution causes everyone to believe they’re average- because they are, but only as a result of this aggregation. At Imperial, reference points of intelligence (and sometimes reality) become horribly skewed. We certainly exhibit classic Dunning-Kruger effects, and they have been perpetuated by the transition between school and university.

What will be interesting is to find out what effect a shift into the big wide world of employment does to our intellectual psyche. Will I become an arrogant dickhead who name-drops ‘Imperial College’ like it was the best thing since Chinese finger traps?

The Dunning-Kruger effect has been inherent in scientific discovery for over a century. The beloved Charles Darwin stated in his 1871 book, The Descent of Man, that ”ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”

It is not just ignorance, the distinct lack of technical knowledge, that drives science forward, but also the acumen to know there are gaps in our knowledge.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is currently playing strong in the climate change debate. Skeptical Science largely dismisses skeptics of climate change evidence, more often then not assertive and over-confident, as suffering from scientific naivety.

Back in College, it’s hard to know whom to believe. People claim that I’m a terminal inpatient in the Dunning-Kruger ward. I disagree. I’ll show them with my 3rd class degree this summer. I’ll show them.

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