“If you're incompetent, you can't know you're incompetent ... The skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is." - David Dunning
While driving to the range one day, a good friend was speaking to us about various firearms training topics. This friend is highly skilled and very knowledgeable about the subject and he explained that over several years he had come to the realisation that much of the information that he takes for granted is in fact alien to many shooters and firearms instructors. That what he considers “common” knowledge is anything but.
The conversation reminded us about a cognitive bias that psychologists call the Dunning-Kruger Effect. The name comes from the authors of a journal article entitled “Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.” This research was later expanded on by the authors and others (all of which is worth reading) but for the sake of brevity the key concepts of the Dunning-Kruger Effect can be summarised as:
- That people of low ability suffer from illusory superiority where they overestimate their ability due to their inability to recognise their own shortcomings (you don’t know what you don’t know).
- That as abilities improve people tend to become more aware of their own limitations and tend to underestimate their ability (you know what you don’t know).
The Dunning-Kruger Effect is popularly shown as a graph that plots confidence against competence. The graph shows an initial spike in confidence as the person gains a small bit of experience. That peak is commonly referred to as Mount Stupid and the individual that reaches the summit has no comprehension of how much they still have to learn. As the person gains additional competency confidence declines as they become aware of their limitations. Eventually their confidence begins to increase as the individual gains a realistic understanding of their actual level of competency on the road to mastery.
So, what does all this have to do with firearms training? The sad reality is that many firearms instructors and decision makers have planted their flag firmly on Mount Stupid and there lies the rub. To progress past Mount Stupid an instructor must acknowledge that they don’t know everything, which isn’t an easy feat to begin with, for the Type A personalities that gravitate to this field of work. The problem is compounded by the high confidence that you already know everything, that can only come from not knowing much. We have actually met 9-5 instructors who, despite being at the bottom of the barrel within their own units, genuinely believe that they possess more firearms training knowledge than the combined faculties of guys like Kyle Lamb, Pat McNamara, Travis Haley, Gabe Suarez, Jason Falla, Clint Smith, Mike Pannone, Mike Seeklander and Aaron Barruga et al all put together. Clearly anyone with that kind of mentality has not only reached the heights of Mount Stupid but has gone and built a resort there. The amusing thing about the Dunning-Kruger Effect is that the incompetence is obvious to everyone else while the sufferer remains blissfully ignorant.
There are three major problems arising from having trainers and decision makers stuck at the summit of Mount Stupid. Firstly, training becomes stagnant as trainers at the summit aren’t really teaching, they are simply parroting what they have heard someone else say, much of which is tired old dogma that should have been put to rest long ago. This has a massive impact on the quality of training delivered to the people who need it most, in the military and in law enforcement. Secondly Mount Stupid stifles innovation because it is next to impossible to teach someone who already knows everything. Finally, decision makers and trainers on Mount Stupid don’t possess the requisite knowledge to make informed decisions on training issues. This means that if they are exposed to a method or technique that takes their fancy, regardless of merit, they will enthusiastically adopt it, ultimately resulting in a curriculum that can best be described as a turd.
Professional mastery may be hard work but the pursuit of excellence for its own sake is a worthwhile venture. Before you can begin that journey though, you need to come down from Mount Stupid. All it takes to begin your descent is to admit you don’t know everything and then the real learning can begin. Good luck.