If You Don’t Have a Ph.D In Psychology Don’t Presume to Understand Human Nature

I have written about the phenomenon of people who have no education, training, or expertise in psychology who think they know as much about human behavior as I, a psychologist, know. I am frequently asked for my opinion about someone or something, only to be told, “Well, I don’t have a degree in psychology, but I do know about my Uncle Bubba’s situation and it is different than what ‘them there’ books say.” When this happens, I usually shake my head, muster a fake smile, and wish the person well, knowing he/she will never be able to understand what it means to really understand human behavior. People who believe they possess expertise in a complex subject they do not understand have succumbed to a cognitive bias known as The Dunning-Kruger Effect. The Dunning-Kruger Effect is caused by people’s failure to understand the differences between their performance and others’ performance. Most people have no means of assessing their performance on a particular task, especially a complex task that is acquired from years of study. These people truly do not know what they do not know! For example, people who do not have a Ph.D. in psychology often consider themselves to be a “good judge of character” (whatever that means), failing to consider the years of education and training we psychologists have in learning how to interpret human behavior, to the point of being able to predict what someone is likely to do or say. Many well meaning people have inadvertently insulted me by saying, “Well, that’s just common sense,” “Or I don’t have to have a doctorate in psychology to know the answer to that question,” or something similarly inane. An interesting side effect of this cognitive bias is the inability to distinguish between competence and incompetence, creating a situation wherein the incompetent person fails to recognize his/her incompetence. The end result is termed the “dual-burden,” due to the fact that the person both lacks the skill and is ignorant of this lack of skill. Word to the wise: If you don’t have a Ph.D. in psychology, don’t presume to understand human nature the way I do. And don’t second guess your neurosurgeon, ophthalmologist, or endodontist either, for that matter.

Knowing what you don’t know or knowing that you don’t know are important skills for getting through a career, or life.  An economics professor once pointed this out to me when I remarked that I felt, despite having earned highest grade on a test in his class, there was so much I didn’t know about the subject matter he was teaching.  He said knowing what you don’t know is a sign of intelligence.  That thought has, perhaps, made me more cautious along the way, but has served me well.  Yet, as Melissa points out, many people don’t abide by this idea.  I’ve seen it with photography, as well meaning people have occasionally pointed out I was doing something “wrong.”  But she, and perhaps we, live with it regularly in our trial consulting work.  Many lawyers we speak to either think they know all about psychology, without having a psychology background, because they once read a book or attended a seminar.  As I wrote a few months ago, (https://magnusinsights.com/2021/12/what-is-old-is-new-again/) the superficial knowledge gained in some of these seminars may be accurate, but is usually presented in a limited context, and often by those seeking a magic formula to success.  As with any field, blue collar or white collar, there are things that may seem like common sense, but only after someone hammered them out.  Further, attempting to generalize, while not having a complete grasp of the subject matter, can lead to serious error.  When talking with an expert in any field, deferring to their knowledge, while attempting to learn from it, is the smart approach.  Especially when one is paying that expert!

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