Have you ever met a musician who thinks that he or she is much better than they really are? Even when they're low-skilled players, they’re still able to exude a confidence of someone with three times their abilities. Believe it or not, there’s actually a name for this inflated sense of competence: It’s a phenomenon in psychology known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This theory, which was developed in 1999 by Dr. David Dunning and Dr. Justin Kruger, two Cornell University psychology professors, is defined as "a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability to recognize their [own] ineptitude."
When one suffers from this type of cognitive bias, it’s really difficult for them to learn from their mistakes. So consequently, they rarely experience significant growth. As someone in higher education, I frequently encounter students who show symptoms of the Dunning-Kruger effect, and sometimes they will even enter college with full-blown cases. In accessing my own abilities, I probably lean more in the direction of being too critical. When I was a young student in my late teens and early twenties, I was critical to the point where I didn’t even enjoy playing music. I was convinced that everyone else was judging me with the same harsh and critical ears with which I was judging myself—which I later discovered was certainly not the case. However, the upside of being overly critical was that did I address my weaknesses and, consequently, got better. And as far as me learning to enjoy playing, despite my flaws: eventually I did. Especially when my strengths started to significantly outnumber my flaws.
Individuals with the Dunning-Kruger effect don’t have these kinds of internal struggles. Their sense of self-worth does not change no matter how horribly they play. And there’s something very admirable about this quality. I think we all can benefit having a little bit of this quality. I wish that when I was a young student at Berklee that I would have been able to enjoy a nice morning walk along the Boston Common after playing badly at Wally’s Jazz Club the night before. My collegiate life would have been a lot less tortuous. But then I wouldn’t have improved as much as I did during the fours that I was there. The fact that I felt like I sounded badly made me wake up early the morning and address the issues I was having trouble with.
And here's an important point: It’s not that people affected by the Dunning-Kruger effect don’t receive feedback from teachers and friends throughout their lives. Many actually do. It just doesn’t mean anything--at least not enough for them to change how the feel about their abilities. In fact, many of my classmates who suffered from the Dunning-Kruger effect received the same kind of feedback that I did from my teachers. There were saxophone students who studied with Joe Viola, Bill Pierce, George Garzone, and Andy McGhee—the A Team of saxophone studies--and came away with absolutely nothing. The difference is that when they received suggestions of things to work on from these great teachers, they didn’t address their issues with any sense of urgency, if at all; whereas, I would deal with those issues right away. In fact, many of these teachers were constantly telling me that I didn’t sound as horrible as I believed I did.
There were a few teachers at Berklee who were affected by the Dunning-Kruger effect, too. There was one saxophone teacher in particular who used to say that Coltrane sounded too mechanical and didn’t have any soul. And that Sonny Rollins just played a lot of patterns. Of course, no one could make such bad assessments without having a disproportionately healthy ego in relation to others. And, of course, he played horribly. Surprise, surprise! No one with such inabilities to assess could ever get their act together musically.
And I must say, you’ll certainly find a lot of these types in jazz academia. People with Ph.Ds in jazz studies tend to be a lot cockier than those who make their living playing it. There’s a tendency to believe that being able to talk or write about jazz gives you some merit in being able to play it. Also, there’s a humbling factor that accompanies playing. Live performances are constant reminders that you have a lot to work on and that you are lacking in many areas. If you’re in the classroom and not on the bandstand, you’re not getting those reminders.
But when if comes down to it, the lifeline for the Dunning-Kruger effect is ignorance. The fewer people know, the more they are convinced that they do know--whereas, people who are knowledgeable and competent tend to focus on what they don’t know. They have two completely different ways of framing knowledge. An incompetent jazz musician will boast about knowing ten standard tunes. Whereas, a really good jazz musician would be self-critical that there are ten standard tunes that he or she doesn’t know.
Or here’s another example: How many times have attended a jam session and listened to some drummer totally destroy the tune and come away feeling elated for having gotten through it--being totally oblivious to the fact that he annoyed everyone, the tempo was dragging, and the beat was constantly getting turned around. Then you would have another (competent) drummer get up a play and totally nail it; yet, he would only be focused on the things that he did incorrectly. He might say: “It was OK. I let the tempo rush a bit.” As the British philosopher, Bertrand Russell put it: "The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt."
However, there is an antidote to the Kruger-Dunning effect: knowledge. It’s the ignoramus’ kryptonite. Commit yourself to serious study and learning and you’ll chip away at this cognitive bias with each page turn of a book, each practice session with your instrument, or each rotation of a great CD. The good news is that it’s not fatal. Only if you let it be.