Are you as good as you think you are

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The Dunning Kruger Effect and the Security industry

The security industry is one built on lots of great people with great skills and experience mixed in with a large amount of people who really shouldn’t be in it. I’m not going to go into all of the factors as to why this is the case but it is the reality. I have great time and respect for the many people in this industry who have for years worked and gained experience in this industry. Many of them stand humbly on doors and floors all over the country. I also have a lot of respect for the new entrants who come into the industry and put their head down to learn the trade properly. What I do have an issue with is those who enter the industry and within a few weeks or a year are boasting and telling the world  how good they are and what they know ( I sounds like a grumpy old man I know). That’s the Dunning Kruger effect and that’s what I want to talk about here. We are never as good as we think we are and experience is one of the things that teaches us that.

What is the Dunning Kruger effect?

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people believe that they are smarter and more capable than they really are. It’s a very natural human response to trying a new task and not failing at it.  It says that low ability people do not possess the skills needed to recognize their own incompetence. This is often not their fault in that they couldn’t know what they don’t know so it’s a very natural belief. This mixture of a lack of self-awareness and low cognitive ability (not stupidity) leads them to overestimate their own capabilities. This doesn’t make them stupid or mean that they aren’t going to make excellent security operatives in time. It just means that a limited amount of success in any task (such as security) without many real pressure situations or failures has given a false sense of confidence. Experience then introduces reality and failures and over time we become different. In the words of the great Rory Miller we become “less confident but more competent’. The graph below gives a good illustration of the effect.

Image result for dunning kruger effect

Source: github

What causes it?

In the original 1999 research carried out by Dunning and Kruger they spoke about what they referred to as the ‘dual burden’. People with a small degree of skill are generally incompetent at a proficient level (the ability to apply the skill every time under pressure) and their lack of competence makes them unable to judge the competence of others. I’ve been there and probably many of you have been there and have learned harsh lessons along the way. People at this level usually;

  • Overestimate their own skill level
  • Fail to recognise their own mistakes and any lack of skill
  • Fail to recognise  skill and expertise of other people who have genuine proficiency at those skills

I often equate it to my time as a young martial artist when I would look at more senior grades before training and think ‘ I could take that guy’ 15 minutes before being strangled half do death by him. I didn’t know enough about the art to recognise true skill in the art. Ring any bells from the security industry?

A little knowledge is dangerous

In my experience and research on the Dunning Kruger effect I see that  it has the most obvious effect on those who are practising a skill for between 6 months to maybe 5 years. New entrants don’t get it because its all new and they are soaking up new knowledge all day. Usually by the time 5 years kicks in there have been enough experiences and failures to reduce the effect. This doesn’t mean that is gone after 5 years or doesn’t exist before 6 months. Just that its effect is reduced in my experience

A  big contributing factor is that sometimes a small bit of knowledge on a subject can lead people to mistakenly believe that they know all there is to know about a subject or job. A person might have the slightest bit of awareness about a subject, believe that they are  an expert. If you are like this in the security industry, I have news for you. There are people in this industry (including me) for decades who still know only a tiny part of the industry and are still learning every single day. Anyone who tells you that they have been doing this job for xxx amount of years and knows it all is deluding themselves.

How important is experience?

I had a debate with somebody recently on the Facebook page abut this. I can’t remember the person’s name, but they made the point that experience was the only thing that mattered in security (at least that’s the way I perceived his point) and I disagreed. Experience is of course very important but only when added to skills development, learning, self-awareness and work ethics. Experience on its own doesn’t overcome the Dunning Kruger effect. There are plenty of people out there in this industry who are working in it a very long time but aren’t very good at their job (I’m standing by for all of the FB comments from this crowd once this article is published) . I don’t think I made my points very well to this person, but I think in a roundabout way we were both saying the same thing. I think the most valuable thing that experience has thought me is not in my successes its been in my failures. It teaches a person what they lack in real skill and shows you your own deficiencies. That’s the value of experience. I don’t think there is any value to experience where you are never tested and never push yourself to see where you fail and see how good you are under pressure. That’s more going through the motions than real experience and can still leave you suffering from the Dunning Kruger effect.

How to overcome the effect

Psychology is a fascinating subject to me and one of the areas which I believe real security practitioners should spend more time researching. Knowing how and why your brain (and every other human brain) works gives great insights and has helped me develop as both a person and professional over the years. Humans are driven by biases and habits and in this is the key to overcoming the effect without waiting for experience and failure to teach harsh lessons. My tips are what work for me and are my suggestions. They may not work for you, but I suppose you won’t know unless you’re willing to try (or maybe your stuck in the Dunning Kruger effect?)

  1. Always be learning.  I’ve written about this before. Always be filling your brain with new information that helps you grow as a professional. Know what you don’t know and research it. This week so far, I’ve been reading about cyber security and AI applications for security. I know very little of either and learning has changed already how I approach certain tasks that I thought I was good at already.
  2. Question everything: Don’t just believe everything you read or see. Go check out the alternative and opposite views and form your own experiences. Our brain has a bias know as conformation bias where it has a belief and then seeks out only information which supports that belief. If information contradicts that belief, then we ignore it. I have experienced this myself in my career in retail security. I would have had quite strong beliefs on addiction and crime until I studied further and spent some time working with addiction centres and reformed criminals .Seeking the opposite views can often open your eyes to things you never knew.
  3. Ask for feedback. We are often caught up in our own world and fail to see things objectively. Don’t be afraid to ask others what they think of your performance or how you are doing. They will often be more honest than we are with ourselves. But don’t take just their word for it. Remember it’s just their perception as well. Ask managers , supervisors or peers for advice and feedback. Even if you don’t like the feedback its still feedback. This was the purpose of me originally beginning this blog. To see what others thought of my ideas and give out what I thought would be of value. I’ve gotten both good and bad feedback on it but it’s all been valuable


I didn’t write this article to have a go at anybody. I wrote it with the best interests of those in the industry who are walking around thinking they are better than they are. Its natural and it happens in every person’s life at some stage. But it isn’t reality and experience and learning will teach that. Dunning Kruger effect doesn’t make a person stupid. We all had it at some stage. It makes them vulnerable and that is something we can all help them with. Ego is a real thing and a natural thing, but it isn’t reality and it doesn’t define  you. How you develop is what defines  you.

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