A Case Study In How The Dunning-Kruger Effect Can Undermine Literature (And What We Can Do About It)

Recently, a writer friend of mine (let’s call this person T) sent me a link to a story at The Onion shredding the pretensions of a bad writer who has no idea he’s a bad writer, called “Novelist Has Whole Shitty World Plotted Out.”

Explaining the link, T had added a simple message: “God, this makes me self-conscious as hell.”

There is no reason to be self-conscious, because T is one of the best writers I know, published or not, and one of the few writers whose voice moves me to envy.  Reading Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, I was repeatedly reminded of T’s writing by King’s easy and evocative style.  T is a natural.

At the same time, another friend of mine asked me to read a story written by an acquaintance, whom we will call C.  C has been writing for years, is well-educated, and well-versed in all the Do’s & Don’ts of writery. Yet, lurking in the first paragraph were half a dozen cringe-worthy mistakes that any decent writer should know to avoid.  As I read on, it didn’t get better, so I reluctantly told my friend that I thought the story was quite awful.

We were each relieved to find the other in agreement.

Yet, while T is hesitant despite natural talent, C is determined and confident all out of proportion to reality. I had stumbled onto a perfect case study in the contrast between over-confident yet lousy writers and talented yet self-doubting writers, demonstrating the perverse influence the “Dunning-Kruger Effect” has on literature, a problem I have discussed before.

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WHAT IS THE DUNNING-KRUGER EFFECT?

To explain, let’s just quote my previous post.

If it is true that the best writers are often not self-promoters, the opposite is also true … and there is clinical research to support this in the infamous Dunning-Kruger Effect.

For those not familiar with the research of David Dunning and Justin Kruger, the conclusions of their research basically boil down to two observations:

  1. Those with the least ability in a particular skill tend to have an inflated estimation of their ability.
  2. Those with the most ability in a particular skill tend to have a deflated estimation of their ability.

Now, apply these two observations to a hypothetical group of writers selected at random and take a guess who will be most enthusiastic about promoting his or her book.

This inflation and deflation is not simply reversion to the mean, either.  It’s not that crappy performers and star performers both consider themselves just “pretty okay.”  Crappy performers tend to think they are above average and star performers tend to think of themselves as average or below average.

However, the good news about Dunning-Kruger is that those with an inflated or deflated sense of their own talents can be talked back to reality by firm and consistent demonstration of the facts about their own, personal abilities.

This method for correcting this cognitive bias becomes important later, so I’ll repeat it: poor performers can be convinced they are poor performers, and star performers convinced they are star performers, by specifically presenting to them the reality of their individual performance.

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OBJECTION OVERRULED!

Now, some might object: what’s the harm in a bad writer who thinks he or she (yes, I am being intentionally gendervague) is the next best-seller?  After all, “if it makes them happy” why should we burst their balloon?  No harm no foul, right?

Imagine someone sewing themselves a Superman costume with plans of leaping from a building, hoping their non-existent powers of flight will take them soaring over the cityscape.  Sure, this is a far cry from overestimating one’s creative talent, but think of it more as a metaphor than a real-world comparison.  Does the momentary happiness they enjoy while crafting that red, white, and blue skinsuit justify enabling their ultimate plummet to almost certain doom?

Especially considering that they may not only severely disappoint themselves, but could fall on someone else.  Someone else, who, had they not been crushed under the fallen body of a fake superhero, might actually have discovered their own real superhero powers … in our publishing metaphor.

There is harm, so there is foul.

Others and I have said it before, and I will repeat it now: There are too many writers and not enough readers to keep the publishing business and literary culture healthy.  The majority of aspiring authors, bad at writing but boosted by Dunning-Kruger and a foolish “everyone has a book in them” culture, drown out the tiny minority of talented writers who are — as scientific research has concluded — more likely to be humble about their talents.  The quality of the field suffers a double-whammy of numbers and contrary temperament.

I know it might seem hokey to talk about moral obligations in the cynical, post-modern 21st Century — especially when moral obligations run counter to someone’s life dream, however ill-conceived.  But, remember: lots of people have dreams and if you genuinely believe that people should live their dreams, you should feel a moral obligation not to encourage unrealistic dreams in a way that would make realistic dreams more difficult to achieve.

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WHAT PUBLISHING PROS CAN DO

So, given the perverse dynamic between talent and self-promotion, what can publishing pros can do to encourage good writers and avoid encouraging bad ones?

1. Raise awareness of the negative consequences of “broadcast boosting” of writing: promoting the act of writing fiction without regard to the potential of the writers being encouraged.  I’m looking at you, NaNoWriMo!

This is narrow strait to navigate, because there is genuine good to be had from encouraging people to write, because there are lots of ways to write other than becoming a published fiction writer.  Someone who has another, non-writing profession certainly can benefit from a habit of writing.  For example in case the opportunity to write an article or book on that profession arises, a non-writer who was used to writing would rely on ghost-writers and editors as little as possible.

But, fiction writing? This should be seen as a profession of its own and publishing pros should present it and represent it as such, which means to stop treating it like open mike night at the karaoke bar.  The casual way that many in publishing push a sort of amateur-hour enthusiasm for fiction writing  demeans the craft and undermines the quality of the field as a whole.

Remember, amateur hours and open mike nights are usually intended to sell drinks, not scout talent.

Worse, since broadcast boosting does not cite specific evidence of an individual writer’s talent, the enthusiasm is far more likely to be absorbed by bad writers (who are already inclined to have inflated enthusiasm for their own talents) than by good writers who need specific information about their individual talent in order to be convinced that they are, indeed, above average.

In other words, broadcast boosting takes a perverse economic dynamic, driven by the Dunning-Kruger bias, and makes it worse.

2. Take steps toward actively, rather than passively, locating good writers. 

Whenever you talk about “good” in relation to a creative talent, someone inevitably asks: “Who’s to say that someone is a good writer or a bad writer?”  So, let’s go ahead and put that to bed. It’s political thinking, civil rights thinking, inappropriately applied to the professional world.

“Presumption of innocence” does not apply to competence, and nobody has an inherent right to have their professional output endorsed by society.

Who’s to say that someone is a good writer or a bad writer? The people who already say, the people who are stewards of the resources invested in those writers, i.e., literary agents, editors, and publishers.

And, if any unabashedly granola idealist out there wants to yank anecdotal evidence from the self-publishing world to demonstrate that technology has made the gate-keepers unnecessary, I will respond that (a) I whole-heartedly agree that the pros often get it wrong, but (b) the pros are wrong far less often than self-promoting writers are.  The ratio of failure to success, or anything even resembling success, in self-publishing is a light-years from the same ratio in traditional publishing.

If the gate-keeper system is an inefficient and often ineffective frying pan, self-publishing is the fire, indiscriminate and all-consuming.

That having been said, the gate-keeper system needs to be more involved, not less.  It needs to reach into education, recruiting teachers and promoting “not everyone has a book in them” realism, so that genuine talent and the literary field can simultaneously be protected from perverse Dunning-Kruger biases.  Writing as self- selfish expression needs to be distinguished from writing as interpersonal service, writing as a rare gift that allows one person to offer something of value to another person who lacks that talent.

Teachers are on the front line of confirming talent, overcoming the suppressive effects of Dunning-Kruger.  I have enormous sympathy for language arts educators who want all of their students to write inspired and moving fiction, but they should understand that some of their students are better suited for math, social sciences, athletics, material trades, and other fields.  The genuine creative writer is a once-in-a-lifetime pupil.  To teach otherwise is to degrade the art and mislead the majority of students.

But, beyond the classroom, publishing pros need to rediscover the virtue of reaching out.  The trend of lying back and filtering through the wannabe-driven, incoming slushpile deluge runs contrary to what science tells us about talent.  It’s not the best way to locate the best writing.  Stigmatizing broadcast boosting and pressing educators to be more discerning in their encouragement of writing talent are just the first steps, and would go a long way in shrinking those slushpiles and increasing their quality.

But, in light of Dunning-Kruger, the slushpile should not be the only source of newly signed authors, nor even the primary source.  Publishing pros should employ scouts to scour the internet for the shrinking violets of the literary world, the 21st Century Margaret Mitchells who need publishing to knock on their doors rather than vice versa.

Ask yourself, who wouldn’t like to discover the next Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller that spawns a multiple Academy Award-winning film?  The Gone with the Wind phenomenon did not arise through the traditional slushpile process.  Therein is the lesson.

After all, the internet is hardly more daunting a slushpile than what is currently standard in the industry. Take the revelations of science into account and reach for the gold ring.  The diamonds are out there, waiting in the rough, if you dare to believe.

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