The Dunning-Kruger Effect in Fitness

Blog
Sarah Cook
July 1, 2016

Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance. — Confucius

I’m starting to think that I’m getting old! When I think about my career, it shocks me that I’ve been in the health and fitness world for over 10 years. Add the 5+ years in college studying exercise science and I’ve spent almost half of my life doing this — I’m extremely fortunate to do something I love and make a career out of it!

Over the years, I’ve had incredible mentors, read books, attended conferences, done research, networked with tremendous coaches and practitioners, obtained certifications…but most of all, I’ve worked with a lot of different clients. From very young kids to the elderly; from the professional athlete to those just trying to walk up stairs without feeling like they ran a marathon; from the extremely fit to those battling chronic illness.

It’s amazing how much different I am now than when I first started. I like to bring out this graph when I reflect on my early years in the business.

When I first came out of college, I thought I knew a lot. I didn’t really – I knew a lot of science, but not how to apply it. Things that I had learned were now outdated and proven false. But I climbed “Mount Stupid” and spent a good amount of time there, telling everyone the right way to do things, before tumbling down the other side. The most interesting thing about “Mount Stupid” is that when you’re there, you don’t know it. You can only see it once you’ve been on the other side.

This graph says it all, but let’s think about the real world examples where we see this play out. In this election year, I DO NOT discuss politics with people. Partly because I know that my arguments aren’t going to change that person’s thinking and ultimately we’ll end up in the same place that we started (only more mad at each other). Mostly, it’s because I think I have just enough knowledge to be overconfident about it. I have some knowledge, but not even close to what I need to fully understand the argument.

If you do like to talk politics, you understand that A LOT of people are very uninformed about the topic, but very eager to give you their opinion. They maybe have seen one documentary or watched cable news for a little while. They think this makes them experts.

People that really DO have a lot of knowledge on the topic know that it’s way more complicated than it appears. Do you remember the Harvard bar scene in Good Will Hunting where Will just takes the guy apart about history and economic theory? It’s worth a Google and it’s a great illustration of this topic.

People that really DO have a lot of knowledge on the topic know that it’s way more complicated than it appears.

This is not just a funny cartoon graph. This is a real scientific study out of Cornell in 1999. The theory became known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and it states (as I take my index finger to the bridge of my glasses and push them up my nose):

(The effect is a cognitive bias in which relatively unskilled persons suffer illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than it really is. Dunning and Kruger attributed this bias to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their own ineptitude and evaluate their own ability accurately. Thanks Wikipedia!)

Side Note:

Interestingly enough, this had a second part which stated that HIGHLY SKILLED individuals may underestimate their relative competence and erroneously assume that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others. Think Michael Jordan coaching basketball – “Why don’t you just create some separation, fade away, and bury the 18 footer. It’s not that hard.”

Here’s the point of this article:

In today’s world, it is so easy to become an “expert.” All you have to do is say that you are one. You can trumpet this on social media, make your own blog, post videos on YouTube of your expertness, and spout a few catch phrases.

In the fitness world, everyone’s a guru. I get it — you need to be a marketer of yourself so you can earn a living, just like you would in any business. My advice to the consumer, though, is to be skeptical. Fancy marketing can only get you far. Beware of “programs” that promise great results with little effort. Beware of headlines that tout “The One Exercise That Will Make All of Your Dreams Come True.” Beware of the 6, 9, or 12-Day Solution to what ails you. Beware of the fitness professional that has been training people for 2 months with their one-day online certification who knows it all. Beware of that coach that is quick to put down other coaches and their training styles and knowledge. Beware of your friend who says she has found the answer to life and it’s gluten free bread. Some of these people may be standing at the summit of Mount Stupid.

My advice to the consumer, though, is to be skeptical.

Fancy marketing and pseudo-science can only get you so far. Eventually – you’re going to want a coach who has the knowledge and experience to look at you – the individual – and realize that you’re unique. You have your own goals, fears, dreams, limitations, learning style, and personality. You want a coach who understands that “real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” (A smart person named Confucius said that).

There are rarely black and white answers to the questions in the world of fitness – and what is right for you may be wrong for someone else. A really good coach has a lot of tools in their toolbox, a lot of motivational styles and training philosophies in their repertoire. The best coaches have an ability to know what they don’t know and the humility to say so. And then the relentlessness to seek out a solution.

When I think of some of the great thinkers in the field of health, fitness, strength and conditioning, and training, I could put myself right in the bottom of that curve in the graph. I think I’ve gotten over the hump of “Mount Stupid” and I’ve thought of this career as a journey where you can never stop looking for answers. There is always so much more to learn.

My suggestion to you, the fitness consumer, is to seek knowledge and not quick answers. To seek out the sources of information that are legit, and not targeted ads on social media. To hire coaches who are constantly developing themselves to help YOU reach YOUR potential. To avoid “Mount Stupid” and find real truth in the murky waters of fitness!

Sarah Cook

Sarah oversees social media and internal communication for Iron Tribe Fitness. Her goal is to share the mission of Iron Tribe so others can be transformed by the program, and ultimately become the healthiest version of themselves.