Thinking About the Enneagram – 3. The Dunning-Kruger Effect and a Suggestion – Mario Sikora

(This is part of a series of articles on critical thinking skills and the Enneagram.)

MarioThere is a syndrome that happens to many martial arts students (interpret that as, this is what happened to the author): You take your first belt test (orange belt, in the author’s case, many, many years ago) and you think you are the combined reincarnation of Bruce Lee and Kwai Chang Caine. A few belts further along the martial path and you realize that while you knew a few basics back then, you really didn’t know anything when you earned your orange belt. Now, however, you are a serious ninja warrior, ready to take on all comers. But the beauty of the dojo is that you get feedback in real time (in the occasional form of a swift pop on the beak) and you eventually start to realize that there are some truly serious ninja warriors out there who can wipe the mat with you with all the effort of lazily swatting a fly and you haven’t yet learned a darn thing. By the time you get to black belt (if you’ve been trained well), you realize that the journey has just begun.

This orange-belt illusion of premature competence is a manifestation of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Based on a series of experiments by psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, the Dunning-Kruger effect is the tendency of incompetent or unskilled people to overestimate their level of skill, to fail to recognize areas of their incompetence, and to fail to recognize competence in others. Highly skilled and competent people, on the other hand, may actually have less confidence in themselves than they should because they wrongly assume that others possess the same level of mastery they do.

This is why, in the martial arts, one often sees brashness and arrogance in green and brown belts and humility in black belts.*

Unfortunately, the Enneagram world is not immune to the Dunning-Kruger effect. How many times do we see people take a weekend workshop or read a few Enneagram books and then set themselves up as Enneagram teachers? All too commonly, I’m afraid… The beginner thinks it is easy, the expert knows how complex and subtle the Enneagram actually is.

We shouldn’t be too harsh on victims of the Dunning-Kruger effect; it is a cognitive bias that is very difficult to defend against and we all fall prey to the traps of our own mind. The zen parable of the mountain addresses this very subject: At the foot of the mountain, it is just a mountain and we think we understand it, not realizing that we have a very limited view. In the midst of our ascent, however, we lose perspective and lose our certainty—we are lost in the clouds, the trail is much more difficult than we thought, our trek takes longer. The mountain is no longer just a mountain. Near the top, we break through the clouds and we finally start to see the big picture.

A variation of the Dunning-Kruger effect is the illusion of cross-domain expertise, where someone thinks that because they have mastery in one domain they can simply transfer that expertise to another. Linus Pauling, the brilliant chemist and one of only four people to win two Nobel Prizes, may be the most prominent example of this. Clearly a genius with expertise in many areas, Pauling stepped outside of his competence when it came to nutrition and is arguably the person most-responsible for the quackery related to mega-doses of Vitamin C and other supplements.

Pauling’s credentials in other areas made it easy for people to accept his ideas unquestioningly in an area that they should have been more skeptical. Today, things are even worse and a Dunning-Kruger-afflicted minor celebrity such as Jenny McCarthy (aided and abetted by her much more famous ex-boyfriend, actor Jim Carrey) can convince many people that they shouldn’t vaccinate their children based on her “Mommy’s intuition,” science be damned. Sadly, the line separating domains of expertise is made all but invisible by the internet- and media-driven avalanche of misinformation.

While we should be sympathetic to Dunning-Kruger’s victims, we should also take responsibility for what we teach and strive to avoid it; McCarthy and Carrey bear at least some responsibility for the resurrection of vaccine-preventable diseases such as pertussis, measles, and the mumps.

The illusion of cross-domain expertise can be dangerous in the Enneagram world in at least two ways: First, it is tempting to think that someone who has expertise in the system in one domain or application can simply transfer that expertise to another domain and begin offering advice in an area in which they have no experience. Second, it is tempting to think that someone with expertise in a non-Enneagram field who learns a little about the Enneagram can automatically offer something of value when they combine the two topics. (I have seen both sides of this within my field of executive coaching—people with Enneagram skill in one area who think their knowledge of the system automatically makes them qualified executive coaches, and executive coaches who learn the Enneagram and think they have mastered its application to coaching long before they truly have.)

I can’t count the number of IEA conference presentations, articles, and even books that have been offered up as profound insights that merely seem to be someone’s untested thought experiments. Sometimes these thought experiments lead to profound insight and useful applications; other times they should be rushed to the ash heap.

Again, we should be forgiving about these tendencies, even when we see them in ourselves. Cognitive biases such as Dunning-Kruger affect us all, which is why critical thinking skills are so important—they don’t guarantee protection from illusion but they sure help reduce the frequency with which we fall into it and the time for which we stay in its grasp.

Being part of a mature community that can offer feedback is also helpful. A Sufi friend of mine once pointed out that the problem often faced by people who leave orthodox communities and start their own groups is that they have no one to point out to them when they go off track and lose their bearings. A community that does not consist merely of acolytes provides us with someone to (lovingly, one hopes) pop us on the beak when we need it. The excesses of so many self-proclaimed gurus seem to support my friends view.

This is an area, I think, were the Enneagram community can grow. While the community has made great advances regarding the cross-fertilization of ideas and cooperation among major teachers, there is still too much passive-aggressive (and, sometimes, nakedly aggressive) sniping from the Shadows. I believe that this stems from an unspoken cultural norm of not criticizing ideas on their merit because it is seen as a criticism of the individual who poses the idea. Instead of focusing on ideas there is the temptation to focus on who has the most ribbons and who certified with whom. Mature intellectual communities do not do this—they openly discuss and rigorously criticize ideas while respecting the individuals who authored the ideas, and they are focused on quality and content rather than provenance.

The Enneagram community will stay trapped in adolescence and risks increasing factionalization if it does not address the inability to openly and rigorously discuss and debate ideas. At the same time, as every coach knows it is only appropriate to give people feedback if you have their permission to do so. Smart executives know that they learn from feedback, and the best executives are far more eager find out what they are doing wrong than what they are doing right; smart executive coaches know that giving feedback is only a good idea (and ethically appropriate) if the client is willing to hear it.

Therefore, I would like to encourage Nine Points Magazine to serve as a forum for the rigorous, but civil and respectful, discussion of ideas. I’ll admit that I find nothing so onerous as open forums that turn into anger-laced and tedious soapboxes for internet cranks. Instead, this could be an opportunity for IEA Professional Members to open themselves for the critique of their ideas in a spirit of learning. In that spirit, I invite anyone so inclined to critique things I’ve written—in articles, blogs, or my book. I say this in the hope opening a conversation and receiving candid and open feedback. I encourage other authors or Enneagram teachers to do the same.

We can only overcome the Dunning-Kruger effect if we open ourselves to feedback, make a habit of checking our assumptions, and maintaining a spirit of open-minded learning. Such a forum can help us do this if it focuses on ideas rather than people, openness rather than defensiveness, and mutual benefit rather than personal gain. Ground rules need to be set and followed, and there will probably be a few bruised egos along the way. But it’s the only path to mastery.


Mario Sikora is an executive coach and consultant who advises leaders in large multinational organizations and conducts Enneagram-based certification programs and workshops across the globe. He is the co-author of Awareness to Action: The Enneagram, Emotional Intelligence, and Change and past president of the Board of Directors of the IEA. He continues to serve on the board of directors and overseas international affairs for the IEA. He can be reached via his website:


*Oddly enough, Bruce Lee is a vivid example of this. He was a brilliant martial artist, but his formal training under a teacher ended when he was 18. He then set about “reinventing” the martial arts. Had he continued with a master, he would have learned that much of what he “invented” already existed in traditional martial arts, he just didn’t get to that part of the training yet.

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