…And why black belts realize they know very little

I was listening to a Joe Rogan Podcast with Robb Wolf (Check it out here; it’s a good one) and in their conversation, a psychological construct was brought up that I have never heard of. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. The idea behind the Dunning-Kruger Effect is that people of low competence in a skill area tend to believe they know much more than they actually do. It is an interesting concept when you see the typical MMA enthusiast come into a school for the first time thinking they can beat everyone because they’ve seen Demian Maia do it on television all the time.

I joke often to my students that the better I get, the more I realize I don’t know. It seems socratic. Higher ranked students frequently¬†admit their ignorance while lower rank students tend to claim competence.

In their seminal study, Dunning and Kruger suggested that there are four tenets to this effect. They claimed that people who are typically incompetent:

  • Do not realize their lack of skill
  • Do not see how inadequate they are
  • Have trouble assessing the skill levels of others
  • Only see their short-comings after actually performing (read: failing) at a task

A subsequent study performed by Ehrlinger et. al. attempted to provide some alternative explanations but rather found results that confirmed Dunning and Kruger’s as well as provided some more insight showing that participants that performed poorly¬†do not respond as well to feedback as their high-performing counterparts.

I found these theory fascinating because it explains so much about the grandiose self-perceived skills that some of the lower ranks tend to have. It explains the frustration from rough training sessions that seem to expose the lack of skills and inadequacy of white belts trying to tap everyone out or blue belts that are still falling to white belts and why people that think they know it all tend to perform more poorly than the seniors students that never admit to know more than they do.

Applying the Dunning-Kruger Effect to our Jiu-jitsu Practice

Knowing that at some point we need to realize that we are not as good as we think we are and perhaps there is a whole world of jiu-jitsu we are ignorant and oblivious to, we can facilitate the process sooner rather than later. Acknowledging our own short-comings earlier will lead to being more humble, having an open mind which is better for learning and cultivates much more respect for everyone who has been on the mats longer than we have.

Personally for me, everyday that I train is one more day that I realize how much more I do not know. My knowledge and execution are challenged daily and as an instructor, competitor and training partner, I am perpetually humbled. This humility is important if I expect to make any progress. We can only learn if we can be open-minded to all that we do not know.

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