Recently we discussed the psychological studies that confirmed the existence of what is now known as Dunning-Kruger effect (referred to in the rest of the post as “D-K effect.”) If you didn’t read that post, it would help to read it before proceeding, although you can probably understand this post fine without reading it.
Today I want to discuss a form of the Dunning-Kruger effect that applies toward relationships, which I call the Maturity Paradox.
First, though, here are some relevant quotes cited by the study authors Dunning and Kruger in their various studies documenting the D-K effect:
It is one of the essential forms of such incompetence that the person so afflicted is incapable of knowing that he is incompetent. To have such knowledge would already be to remedy a good portion of the offense.
- W.I. Miller
“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.
- Charles Darwin
Another relevant quote not found in Dunning and Kruger’s studies:
In the modern world, the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.
- Bertrand Russell
When articles discuss the D-K effect and its implications and ramifications, they tend to focus on areas such as athletics, sciences, mathematics, humor, and the types of subjects that are taught in schools. However the D-K effect has a much broader, more useful application: relationships. Not just the romantic kind, but all types of social relationships, including friendships and professional relationships.
Like math, science, and telling jokes, relationships are another area where competency, intelligence and skills are required, regardless of whether the relationships in question are romantic, platonic or professional. The complete set of life skills needed to have healthy, lasting relationships and navigate real world responsibilities successfully as adults are collectively referred to as maturity. If you are incompetent at these life skills, you are considered immature.
So let’s revisit the sentiments expressed in the four quotes from earlier, but this time let’s change the wording to discuss maturity instead, and you’ll see how they still work:
It is one of the essential forms of immaturity that the person so afflicted is incapable of knowing that he is immature. To have such knowledge would already be to remedy a good portion of the offense.
Immaturity more frequently begets confidence than does maturity.
In the modern world, the immature are cocksure while the mature are full of doubt.
The Dunning-Kruger effect, when applied to skills and competencies required to be mature, leads us to the Maturity Paradox, which states Immature people tend to overestimate how mature they are and underestimate how much more they need to learn in order to become mature and how mature others are, while mature people tend to underestimate how mature they are and overestimate how mature others are.
As a result of this paradox, immature people are far more likely to have a negative effect on the maturity levels of people more mature than they are than mature people are likely to have a positive effect on the maturity levels of people less mature than they are. The immature think they have little left to learn, and that they’re better than everyone around them, so no one can tell them shit. Meanwhile the mature remain more open to the idea they still have a lot to learn, and that most people are in some ways as mature as they are and therefore may be able to teach them something.
This dynamic is at play in this description from the post “Theaters of Operation:”
It’s far, far easier for a neurotic person to drag a mentally healthy person down deeper into the secondary theater than it is for a mentally healthy person to lift a neurotic person into the primary theater.Again, look at adults and children. Adults on average are much more mature and intelligent and possessing of common sense than a child. But think of what it takes to make a child into a mature, responsible person. Years and years of good upbringing. Raising a child to be mentally healthy and responsible and possessing of social interest is one of the hardest jobs in society. But think how easy it is for a bratty kid to make an adult lose his cool? Even some of the most mature adults can be driven by children to lose their cool or engage in pettiness, even if only temporarily.
You have to be far, far more mature, I’m talking almost exponentially more mature, than the other person to resist being dragged down to their level. Even being twice as mature (pretending that such things could be objectively measured) is not enough. That’s why it’s often better to give up on neurotic or personality disordered people and charge them to the game than narcissistically convince ourselves that we’re enlightened enough to “fix” them through love or leading by example or sharing our spirituality with them.
You’ll notice in life that narcissists and other types of Cluster B personality disorders will often be the most socially and emotionally immature people you can ever meet, yet will be the people most arrogant about how much more mature they are than everyone else and how little they have to learn from other people, who they consider so inferior.
Of course this is just a crude summary and there are more nuances at play as well as some exceptions, which we’ll go into in more detail this week, but this general concept for the holds true for most cases.