Dunning-Kruger

Have you ever heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect? This has its basis in a paper published in 1999 by David Dunning and Justin Kruger of the Department of Psychology, Cornell University. I came across it the other day and considered how it might apply to chess.

From Wikipedia:

“The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than is accurate.

“Dunning and Kruger proposed that, for a given skill, incompetent people will:

fail to recognize their own lack of skill
fail to recognize genuine skill in others
fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy
recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they are exposed to training for that skill”

So with regard to playing chess, unskilled chess players have no understanding that they are unskilled. By ‘unskilled’ in this context I mean failing to know all the rules of chess and failing to understand basic tactics and strategy. In my part of the world, most children are taught the moves by parents who are unskilled chess players, who know how the pieces move and think that’s all there is to chess. Which might explain why, when I offer to help them or give them advice on chess they either ignore me or tell me they don’t want my help. They might recognise and acknowledge their own lack of skill if I provided them with training, but as they don’t recognise their incompetence they are not prepared to expose themselves to training.

Of course the idea of ‘unskilled’ is relative. Children who are aware that I can beat them very easily, and also parents who are aware that I can beat their children very easily, often assume that I must be a grandmaster because they perceive me as being unbelievably brilliant at chess. By Magnus Carlsen’s standards, or even by Nigel Davies’s standards, though, I’m a pretty bad player. Competent, perhaps, but no more than that. Competent enough to recognise my own lack of skill, and, up to a point, to appreciate how skilful Carlsen and other grandmasters are.

The Dunning-Kruger effect applies to teaching as well as playing chess. In fact teaching is a whole range of skills. Teaching a group and teaching an individual are very different skills. Teaching elite junior internationals is very different from teaching beginners. Teaching younger children, teaching older children and teaching adults are all very different skills. But many strong chess players assume that all you have to do to be a chess teacher is stand in front of a class and tell them what you know. This might work in some environments, but not, for instance, with a class of 7-year-olds in a primary school chess club.

These teachers may look impressive but if you actually test their pupils to find out what they do and don’t know, or talk through a game with them and ask them what they’re thinking about you’ll discover just how effective they really are.

Dunning and Kruger also concluded that those with genuine ability in a particular domain tended to underestimate their own competence and assume that something they found easy would also be easy for others. So strong players who teach beginners tend to go too fast, assuming that because chess comes easily to them it will also come easily to their pupils, and assuming that children have understood something when in fact they haven’t. It’s very easy to get frustrated when a pupil hasn’t picked up something which is second nature to you.

There are cultural differences which also need to be explored. From Wikipedia again:

“Studies on the Dunning–Kruger effect tend to focus on American test subjects. A study on some East Asian subjects suggested that something like the opposite of the Dunning–Kruger effect may operate on self-assessment and motivation to improve. East Asians tend to underestimate their abilities and see underachievement as a chance to improve themselves and get along with others.”

I’ve written before about different attitudes to parenting and childhood: what I call the ‘Eastern’ approach: children are seen as small adults and are expected to aim to excel at everything they do, and the ‘Western’ approach: childhood is when you have fun: children are expected to work hard in school but extra-curricular activities are often seen as not being very serious. Perhaps this is part of the same thing. People with a ‘Eastern’ mindset are more likely to be searching for self-improvement as well as being more likely to expect their children to excel at music, chess or whatever.

Of course these are crude generalisations. Many Western parents will take an ‘Eastern’ approach while many Asian or East European parents will take a ‘Western’ approach. Most parents will, to a greater or lesser extent, take a ‘Western’ approach to some subjects and an ‘Eastern’ approach to other subjects.

But it seems to me that the fundamental problem with after-school chess clubs is parental ignorance about all aspects of chess. One way of countering this is to put chess on the curriculum so that all children are taught to play properly. Another way is to promote chess clubs in secondary schools when children are old enough to teach themselves if they’re interested rather than in primary schools.

I’ve spent the last 15 years or more telling anyone who wants to listen that primary school chess clubs in their current form are destroying chess as an adult game in this country. The Dunning-Kruger effect explains why most children don’t get anywhere and also why most teaching in primary school chess clubs is ineffective.

Let’s try to do something about it.

Richard James

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About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177.