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The Dunning-Kruger Effect in Aviation

By Dan Grunloh, Editor, Light Plane World

Dan Grunloh

In 1999, two Cornell University scientists published a paper titled “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” which concluded what we already know: “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Their research also went a bit further and supported another belief long held by teachers and philosophers: “the less you know, the more you think you know.” The results were so conclusive and widely accepted that the effect was soon named after the authors. Its implications are now recognized in areas such as business management, finance, medicine, and antique furniture appraisal. It may be caused by the way our brains work; no one was or is immune, not even Einstein, Mozart, or a space shuttle pilot.

There are few places where this cognitive failure could be more serious than in aviation. Any perusal of student pilot accidents will reveal obvious examples. The area of ultralight flying is especially fertile ground for it to bloom. The lack of experience or knowledge in the subject area robs the individual of the ability to accurately assess his or her own performance. College students in the Cornell study were given sample tests in a variety of subjects. When tested in their poorest subject area, they greatly overestimated their ranks in the class, even after they were shown their poor test scores!

All pilots can be tricked by this effect whether we are newcomers or pilots transitioning to a new type. Sometimes it may seem like the instructor is spending too much time on a subject or exercise we think we will never need. The Dunning-Kruger effect also concluded that the less we know about the subject, the less we’re able to recognize expertise in others. We’re robbed again by our lack of knowledge. In the early years of ultralight training, it wasn’t uncommon for the instructor to withhold or minimize landing practice for a few hours until emergency procedures and other subjects could be taught. Since no endorsement was (or is) required for ultralights, once the student felt he could land, he would stop coming back for instruction.

In aviation it’s best to err on the side of caution, especially in areas where you aren’t already an expert. The experienced flight instructor, ground instructor, and engine mechanic should be given their due respect. The ultralight pilot who teaches himself how to fly by making short hops because the instructor lives too far away has almost certainly overrated his own ability. Novice pilots who think they can skimp on maintenance, the takeoff checklist, or proper traffic pattern procedures may be suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect. The experienced fixed wing pilot who believes he can teach himself to fly a weight-shift trike on floats had best leave his wallet on the dock. Remember, “the less you know, the more you think you know.”

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