The “other minds” problem and the Dunning-Kruger effect

“One-year-olds think that if they like Goldfish Crackers, then Mommy and Daddy must like Goldfish Crackers, too: they have not grasped the idea that what is inside their head is different from what is inside everyone else’s head. Sooner or later, though, children come to understand that Mommy and Daddy don’t necessarily like Goldfish Crackers, too, and that moment is one of the great cognitive milestones of human development.”  Malcolm Gladwell

According to psychologists, we are fascinated our entire lives with the differences between other minds and ours – yet, we seem to forget about the difference at the drop of a hat, as soon as emotion comes into it. I think we are more guilty of this in relationships than any other part of our lives, expecting our partner to behave in the same way as us, and place the same importance on “Goldfish Crackers” as we do.

What I find funnier, however, having worked with executives my entire career, is that some of them will have the same reaction to a tough decision. Some seasoned C-Levels will have the same reaction as a one-year-old.

I find this intriguing, because any good leader wil know: leadership is hard. You need patience. Patience to explain over and over and to coach people you see potential in, and more than that, coach people you don’t particularly like, but you know will benefit the company. Leadership is silent, ungrateful and unglamorous. Spectacularly unglamorous.

But as difficult as it is, it is one of the most rewarding things I have been blessed to witness so far, and at the core of it is the ability to understand that different people will have different perceptions. Some leaders have this innately and some get there after years of sweat, tears and experience.

The thing is, the choice of who we want to be is in our hands, and here are some things I’ve learnt over the course of my career from some exceptional humans I’ve met along the way:

  • Our thoughts shape our existence, and we control our thoughts. And once you know this, your emotions don’t rule you, and you have an untethered ability to see people, instead of project your own view of who they are and limit them. You can finally listen. 
  • There are no problems, there’s only opportunities for growth and solutions you haven’t yet found. Success is (1) self-defined (and we so often forget this) and (2) does not belong to the perfect, rather, to the imperfect ones that just won’t give up. There’s your growth mind-set. 
  • There’s no recipe for the really complicated things. There just isn’t. Integrity and allowing people to keep their dignity are, however, two things, which although won’t make any though decisions weigh less on you, will foster trust in the long term (in your own ability to make good calls as well as trust of those that rely on you to make these). There’s your grit. 
  • Integrity is important, because even though you think you can hide whatever it is you’re struggling with from the world (in a “no one will know” fantasy) there is one person that will know the entire time, and guess what – you can’t get rid of them – because that’s you. Integrity is for you before all else, so you don’t corrode your own self-confidence over time. There’s your authenticity. 
  • We have to be aware of our own biases if we want to make the right decisions. Again, in relationships, we tend to think our partner thinks like us, hence reprimand them for the things they don’t do as we would. In a professional environment, coaches are brought in to stress the different ways people respond to problems in order to eliminate tensions in teams, but it’s essentially same issue. We aren’t comfortable with people that don’t react in the same way we do. There’s your self-awareness.
  • Sometimes, you’ve just got to let people have their problem – especially when caused by the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is only a fancy way psychologists have figured out to say that “simple minded” people don’t have the ability to assess themselves as “simple minded”, and in this, also won’t understand the full depth of the “other minds” problem. They have no ability to see their inability and thus, rate themselves highly (or is it “bigly”?).  Herein lies one of the greatest tragedies and opportunities of our time, especially when the effect is clearly demonstrated by some of our world leaders, executives and so on. There’s the ability to pick your battles. 
  • We have to remember that what you think says something about you, not about the external world. Your level of comfort or discomfort is yours and entirely yours, and it says something about how you perceive the world rather than how it is. Everything you feel and think is an amalgamation of your own experiences, history, levels of comfort, pleasure and everything in between. Here’s you owning your life as a choice you’ve already made. You can no longer be a victim, but are in control.
  • Actively listening to others is hard. Yet necessary. Research shows that in the first couple of moments of meeting each other we have formed an impression and everything after that is biased by that first impression. In an effort to control outcomes (and ultimately feel safe), we want to “read” people and end up making assumptions, never quite hearing the other person. If you do manage to remain present instead of let your mind jump to labels and conclusions, I guarantee you will be pleasantly surprised every time. And here you will grow and feel the most. 

People are wonderful. They’re limitless and they often don’t see it themselves… and often, that is because they’re just really hung up on their goldfish. And that’s okay. 🙂



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