Larry David, American Idol and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Here’s a clip from one of my favourite shows “Curb Your Enthusiasm”.

In it, Larry David after claiming he is a natural salesman, gets a job selling cars.

Without any preparation he tries his hand.



In case you don’t or can’t watch the video, here are some examples of what happens:

Example 1

Customer: Tell me, what’s in the engine here?

Larry: What’s in it? Big stuff, big charging, crazy pistons, nutty pistons.


Example 2

Customer: What kind of gas mileage am I going to get?

Larry: 52.

Customer: 52 in the city.

Larry: Depending on the city, of course. Duluth is a city, it’s considered a city but it’s not as big as Brooklyn.

(I also enjoyed that as his incompetence was revealed, he felt the need to fall back on telling a customer “I’m the co-creator of Seinfeld”)


There’s a name for this

Have you heard of the Dunning-Kruger Effect?

From Wikipedia, it’s “a cognitive bias in which relatively unskilled persons suffer illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than it really is.”

In short, when you are rubbish at something, you mistakenly think you’re better than you are. It’s because you don’t know enough to know your shortcomings.

Larry David’s belief that he could easily sell cars was based on his complete ignorance of what the job required.

Shows like American Idol and X Factor (at least the audition parts of the show) would not be anywhere near as entertaining without the Dunning-Kruger effect. When a 19 year old thinks that they can win a national singing competition even though the only person who has told them they are a good singer is their mother, there’s some real cognitive bias happening.

(That reminds me of an X Factor audition a few years back, when a contestant said to Simon Cowell he should be let through to the next stage because: “I’ve been in karaoke finals without looking at the screen“.)

The original research paper that described this phenomenon was published in 1999. It was called “Unskilled and Unaware of It” and consisted of 4 studies that showed the following:

1. Incompetent people were more likely to overestimate their skills than competent people

2. Incompetent people were not able to recognise competence when they saw it

3. Therefore seeing more competent performance, did not make incompetent people realise that they were incompetent.

4. People who were more competent tended to underestimate their skills (“The more you know, the more you realise what you don’t know”).

5. With a bit of training, as people became more competent, they realised the limits of their competence.

As beginners it’s easy to fall for the Dunning-Kruger Effect. But failure to realise your incompetence can lead to some really hard landings in life.

And when you’re starting in a new field or career, it’s easy to misjudge the time and effort it will take to improve at something to the point of excellence. Depending on the field, it may not take 10,000 hours, but it will still take a lot of effort over a sustained period of time. If you’re not willing to do that, then you’re basically hoping for a miracle.

P.S. K Anders Ericsson has published an interesting article saying that Malcolm Gladwell’s original concept of “10,000 hours” is flawed.