Dunning-Kruger Effect: A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing

Why is a little bit of knowledge so dangerous?

Before we get to Dunning-Kruger and the voice, let’s start illustrating with something a bit more tangible: Here is a scientific journal study on whether maximum bench press is affected by doing the exercise on a bench vs an inflatable ball. The study concluded there was no difference in muscle activation between the two – i.e. benching on a bench vs swiss ball = no difference.

I spoke with an Olympic/Commonwealth powerlifting coach about this. Other than calling b******t, he commented that with any real weight on the bar, the ball would burst! Practically, it makes zero sense for someone with any real-world experience weightlifting to even ask whether a swiss ball and a bench could be equivalent for the bench press, let alone conduct an entire study and draw such a conclusion. The researchers therefore clearly lack sufficient real-world experience and understanding in what it takes to lift weights, and yet bizarrely are researchers in this field.

The world of voice

One of the world’s best voice researchers said the following in relation to how he prepares for singing in church:

What I do is I warm up the night before and I sleep a whole lot less. I take maybe three, four, five hours of sleep at the most.

I get up at four in the morning [for an 8am performance] and I start doing my lip trills and my straw phonation [warmups].

Just think about that for a moment: they choose to get 3-5 hours sleep at most, and spend up to 4 hours getting his voice warm for singing at church. If you have ever done regular gigs (as opposed to just once every so often on a Sunday morning), it should be immediately apparent that this suggestion of reduced sleep is not a good thing.

Also, if one needs up to 4 hours to get their voice ready to sing, then their voice is not properly or sufficiently built. Despite great knowledge in one area, they have reached a conclusion that makes little sense when talking about real-world demands of singing.

Real-world singing and Dunning-Kruger

Multiple singers over the last month have all made the comment to me: “it’s normal/typical for my voice to be shot after 20 minutes of singing“. Many spoke with the assumption this was normal, as if that’s what should be happening. The subjective experience of their voice is (of course) still greater knowledge than someone who never sings, but this lacks understanding and context of the wider picture. The beginners mindset leads to be blissfully unaware of just how much they don’t know. Here is what is happening:

Dunning-Kruger Syndrome:

(basic definition from Wikipedia)
In the field of psychology, the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people mistakenly assess their [cognitive] ability as greater than it is. It is related to the cognitive bias of illusory superiority and comes from the inability of people to recognize their lack of ability.

We’ve all met people like this, and we’ve all been those people. It’s where we all start when we begin to learn a skill. The challenge comes when we become convinced our knowledge is complete at any stage, but especially an early stage when we are unable to critically assess our own ability.

No subject is digestible to a high level in short frames of time.

When you think “I’ve got it!” after just a short period of time performing a particular skill, that’s when Dunning-Kruger bites. You know enough to know you’re getting somewhere, but nowhere near enough to objectively assess your own ability. Many beginners get stuck here. Worse still, a number go on to become coaches themselves, unwavering in their belief that they’ve got it all sorted.

In contrast, in any discipline, the most serious practitioners feel like they know less and less as they go on. This is because as they find out more about their chosen subject, the more they realise there is to learn and that they will never be done (as it happens, this is called ‘Imposter Syndrome‘).

“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” – Albert Einstein

This quote resonates immensely strongly with me. The more I learn, the more I feel like my knowledge becomes an increasingly smaller percentage of what there is left to learn. Nevertheless, this is essential to the process of being an eternal student. Whatever the subject, we’ve got to keep learning. The danger comes in becoming stagnant or overly self-assured, as that’s when we find ourselves in a cul-de-sac of our own making.

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