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Raw Concepts: The Maturity Paradox, Pt. 2

[This is another long post. However, I find that even if you plan to read this article online, it’s much easier to read much if you click to read the printable version.]

“Insane people are always sure that they are fine. It is only the sane people who are willing to admit that they are crazy. – Nora Ephron

In my last post, I discussed how the Dunning-Kruger effect, which says that incompetent people are too incompetent to grasp just how incompetent they are, helps to explain narcissists and other Cluster B personality disorders too, since personality disorder sufferers also suffer from a type of incompetence: incompetence in the skills needed to become a fully functional adult with healthy adult relationships. I referred to the application of the D-K effect to the area of maturity as “The Maturity Paradox.”

The skills required to be a healthy, functioning adult are competencies in social intelligence, spiritual intelligence and emotional intelligence. Narcissists and other Cluster B personality disorder sufferers lack these competencies, and therefore lack maturity. They are developmentally trapped in a childlike state of maturity.

Most articles describing Dunning-Kruger just define it as a phenomenon where incompetent people overrate their own skill levels, underestimate the skill levels of others, and think they have little left to learn, while competent people underestimate their skill levels, overestimate the skill levels of others, and think they have a lot left to learn. This is accurate, but it misses much of the nuances and further implications of the original studies. On the other hand, I actually read both the original Dunning-Kruger 1999 study as well as the follow-up studies by Dunning and Kruger where they responded to critics and elaborated on their findings.

After reading all these papers, I came up with 14 important elements of the D-K effect. Most of them are explicitly stated in the papers, some are conclusions I inferred from the findings, and others are personal observations that relate to the study findings. Some of them may seem repetitive or complicated, but each one is subtly different and very important, so make the effort to really understand what each one is saying. The 14 points are as follows:

  1. The less competent you are in an area, the less knowledge and experience you believe is needed to be an expert in that area and the more you believe that you have little left to learn.
  2. The more competent you become in an area, the more knowledge and experience you believe is necessary to become an expert in that area and the more you believe you have a lot left to learn.
  3. Incompetent people tend to overestimate their own skill level and fail to recognize genuine skill in others.
  4. Competent people tend to underestimate their own skill level and overestimate the skill levels of others. Because things come easy to them, they believe that other people to some degree find the same things easy as well.
  5. When a task is extremely easy, smart people are less likely to have self-doubt and will be more correct at assessing their own performance and skill level than incompetent people.
  6. When a task is incredibly hard, incompetent people are more likely to have self-doubt and will be more correct at assessing their own performance and skill level than competent people.
  7. What points #5 and #6 show us is that the D-K effect is most applicable in areas easy enough to grasp that a incompetent person thinks they can be good at it, but still difficult enough that a competent person can doubt himself and before he has more to learn. We’ll call these “grey areas.”
  8. Even in grey areas though, there are exceptions when dealing with the radical extremes of competence and incompetence. A person for example who is so extremely incompetent that they can’t even fathom a guess or response to a single question on a test is not likely to be deluded about how he performed. The person who is a super-expert with tens of thousands of hours of training, practice and experience in a skill area is likely to be so hypercompetent that he won’t have a shred of doubt as to how well he performed.
  9. Incompetent people usually are the same people who have the most to lose from admitting to themselves how incompetent they are. They have a fragile self-image usually and make need to overcompensate with delusions of superiority to cope. They’re not just unable to recognize inferiority but unwilling to recognize it. Meanwhile the more competent have less motivation to glorify their competence levels and may even be motivated to downplay them due to a less shaky self-image or need to feel superior to others.
  10. I feel this is a variation of the Sunk Cost Trap. The more heavily invested you are in something, even if it’s something intangible like a belief in one’s own superiority, the harder it is to cut your losses and let it go, even if its doing you more harm than good. Since these people have invested so much of their self-image into this delusional superiority, they will stick to their guns no matter how much contradicting feedback they get. They’ve reached the point where relinquishing those longtime delusions  and facing the truth about themselves would be too crushing to their ego to bear. I think this is why so many people have to hit rockbottom before they can come to terms with their shortcomings and admit to themselves that the way they’ve done things their whole lives isn’t actually working. Only such extreme, undeniable feedback can shock them to their senses.
  11. When the incompetent are made more competent, their ability to assess their own competence as well as the competence of other improves accordingly.
  12. The problem with observation #11 though is that even though incompetent people improve at assessing competence in themselves and others once they’re made competent, this is still not grounds to celebrate because making the incompetent more competent is notoriously hard to do. When competent people get feedback about how they actually did in comparison to others, they become more accurate in future self-assessments.  Incompetent people on the other hand, even when getting consistent, repeated feedback about how badly they’re doing, still fail to become more confident, still fail to recognize their incompetence, and remain overly confident in predicting future performance.
  13. Incompetent people, when faced with evidence of their own incompetence, are more likely to blame external factors like events or people than blame their own incompetence.
  14. There is a phenomenon called the Illusion of Confidence which wasn’t discussed in the original studies but that I think is very related to D-K effect, where people tend to mistakenly believe that the most confident person is also the most competent. The problem, however, is that the D-K effect actually shows us that it’s usually the least competent people who are often the most confident. Because of the Illusion of Confidence and the D-K effect, people are often more likely to assume overtly confident yet utterly incompetent people are skilled and that cautious, less overtly confident yet very competent people are less skilled. The good news is that Illusion of Confidence works best in the short-term but in the long-term true competency levels tend to come to light.

Let’s follow the logic of my last post and think of maturity and immaturity in terms of competency and skills. Maturity is the trait of having sufficient competency in the social, spiritual and emotional intelligence necessary to be a fully-functioning empathetic adult with healthy relationships. Immaturity is the trait that arises from being incompetent in the social, spiritual and emotional skills necessary to be an adult with healthy relationships. Realizing this, let’s rephrase the 14 previously listed D-K effect findings in terms of maturity and its accompanying competencies:

1) The less mature you are, the less knowledge and experience you believe is needed to be extremely mature and the more you believe that you have little left to learn.

2) The more mature you become, the more knowledge and experience you believe is necessary to become extremely mature and the more you believe that you have a lot left to learn.

3) Immature people tend to overestimate their own maturity and fail to recognize maturity in others.

4) Mature people tend to underestimate their own maturity and overestimate the maturity level of others. Because the social and emotional skills necessary to becoming a healthy adult (for example empathy) come somewhat easy to them, they believe that other people to some degree find the same maturity skills easy as well.

If you ever deal with a narcissist or other Cluster B sufferer, you’ll notice how convinced they are that other people have nothing to teach them, yet they know what’s wrong with everyone else. Even as you see them acting irrational, even though they have a string of failed romantic relationships, careers and friendships and you don’t, even though they have trails of burned bridges and a long list of former friends turned enemies and you don’t, even though they constantly have emotional meltdowns and drama in their lives and you do not (or at least you didn’t until you met them), they will always act as if they are the mature one and you are the immature one and that you must defer to their superior social and emotional skills. They will refuse to admit they have anything to learn, that they might be wrong in assessing a situation, that they may be having a misunderstanding, and most of all that you may be the mature one who is actually assessing things correctly and they may be the immature one who can’t grasp what’s going on.

Observations #3 and #4 also explain why narcissists are so good at projective identification. Projective identification is when someone takes a trait that they have and “projects” that trait onto another person by accusing them of having it, and the other person actually starts believing that they have that trait, even though they didn’t, and may even start behaving accordingly. Since Dunning-Kruger predicts that immature people overestimate their own maturity and underestimate the maturity of others, it’s easy to see why they’d be blind to their own faults and accuse other, more mature people via projection of being the ones who actually have those faults. Meanwhile, since the D-K effect also predicts that the more mature, non-narcissist is likely to underestimate their own maturity and overestimate the maturity of others, it then becomes clear why they are willing to believe that maybe they actually do have the immature traits they are accused of having (“identification”) and why they also are willing to believe that immature narcissist or drama queen is more mature than he or she actually is.

5) When a task is extremely easy, smart people are less likely to have self doubt and will be more correct at assessing their own skill level than incompetent people.

6) When a task is incredibly hard, incompetent people are more likely to have self-doubt and will be more correct at assessing their own performance and skill level than competent people.

7) What points #5 and #6 show us is that the D-K effect is most applicable in areas easy enough to grasp that a incompetent person thinks they can be good at it, but still difficult enough that a competent person can doubt himself and before he has more to learn. We’ll call these “grey areas.”

Maturity and adult relationships are perfect example of grey areas. Healthy family, platonic, romantic, and professional relationships obviously aren’t easy, but they don’t feel like nuclear physics either. Most of us can make friends, get jobs of some sort, get married and have kids, etc. Finding romance, being parents and making friends are tasks easy enough to do that an immature person can fool themselves into believing they are better at it than they are, but still difficult enough that a smart person can doubt himself and believe he has a lot more to learn. I worked with a female narcissist who was totally immature and a total train wreck in every area of her life, yet still loved to give unsolicited advice to others, and believed she was a guru of relationship advice.

8 ) Even in grey areas though, there are exceptions when dealing with the radical extremes of competence and incompetence.

A person for example who is so extremely immature (devoid in social, spiritual and emotional intelligence) that they have had all their friends abandon them or become bitter enemies, have their personal and professional lives in total undeniable shambles, and are utterly alone and despised is going to have a lot of trouble continuing to delude themselves via the D-K effect. The person who is so incredibly mature and full of social, spiritual and emotional intelligence that they are a total rockstar in every area of their life and are happy, content and practicing unconditional self-acceptance is also likely to not suffer from the D-K effect either and probably is aware of just how mature he is.

Thus the best way to avoid falling into the maturity paradox is to become so incredibly mature, meaning to become hypercompetent rockstar in the areas of social, emotional and spiritual intelligence, that you become immune to the D-K effect when evaluating your own maturity and the maturity of others. This is why mastering human nature (social intelligence), cultivating empathy (emotional intelligence) and pursuing enlightened superiority (spiritual intelligence) as completely as you can is so instrumental to healthy adult relationships.

9) Immature people usually are the same people who have the most to lose egowise from admitting to themselves how immature they are. They have a fragile self-image usually and make need to overcompensate with delusions of superiority to cope. They’re not just unable to recognize immaturity but unwilling to recognize it. Meanwhile the more mature have less motivation to glorify their maturity levels and may even be motivated to downplay their maturity due to a less shaky self-image or need to feel superior to others.

10) I feel this is a variation of the Sunk Cost Trap. The more heavily invested you are in something, even if it’s something intangible like a belief in one’s own maturity, the harder it is to cut your losses and let go of that belief, even if its doing you more harm than good. Since these people have invested so much of their self-image into this delusional superior maturity, they will stick to their guns no matter how much contradicting feedback they get. They’ve reached the point where relinquishing those longtime delusions  and facing the truth about themselves would be too crushing to their ego to bear. I think this is why so many people have to hit rockbottom before they can come to terms with their shortcomings and admit to themselves that the way they’ve done things their whole lives isn’t actually working. Only such extreme, undeniable feedback can shock them to their senses.

Shrink4men has a great article called “Is Your Girlfriend or Wife a Professional Victim?” that touches on this dynamic perfectly:

She needs to play innocent victim to someone’s bad guy. It’s the foundation of her identity…It’s impossible to have a loving relationship of equals with a professional victim. She goes through life feeling slighted and angry, never taking responsibility for her actions or life. Good luck trying to talk to her about this. You’ll meet with extreme defensiveness and more blaming behaviors. Her only identity is that of victim: If she doesn’t believe she’s being victimized, then who is she? Someone who treats other people like crap and who is pissing her life away. It’s a matter of psychological self-preservation versus ego annihilation.

That last sentence captures it perfectly: psychological self-preservation versus ego annihilation. If the immature Cluster B person admits her immaturity to herself and admits the self-image of incredible maturity she’s invested so much into is in fact a lie, what does that mean? That she’s the one who caused all her own failures by her own immaturity; she’s the one who ruined her own marriage through her immaturity; she’s the one who caused her coworkers to set her up to get fired because of her own poor social and emotional intelligence because she behaved like an arrogant bitch; she’s the one who caused all her failed personal and professional relationships through her own immaturity and lack of empathy; all her ex-friends and ex-lovers who now are her enemies and totally hate her do so not because they were immature but because she was immature, meaning they rightfully hate her rather than wrongfully, and whatever other negative feedback she’s gotten.

Admitting all that to oneself about oneself is too much for most people to bear, which is why as the negative feedback in the form of life failures continues to mount, they become more rather than less invested in maintaining this delusion about their own maturity. It’s the Cluster B’s own sunk-cost trap.

11) When the immature are made more mature, their ability to assess their own maturity as well as the maturity of others improves accordingly.

12) The problem with observation #11, however, is that even though immature people become much better at assessing their own maturity levels and others’ maturity levels once they are made more competent, the task of making them more mature is very difficult. For example, when mature people get feedback about how they actually did in comparison to others, they become more accurate in future self-assessments.  Incompetent people on the other hand, even when getting consistent, repeated feedback about how badly they’re doing, still fail to recognize their incompetence and remain overly confident in predicting future performance.

What this means is that if you could make a narcissist or other type of Cluster B sufferer more mature, they would be able to better assess how much emotional, spiritual and social intelligence they lack in themselves as well as see how much more mature other people around them, including you, actually are. This is why so many women try to rehabilitate shitty men and so many men become white knights and Captain Save-A-Hoes.

The problem is that even though making a narcissist or drama queen more mature would solve a lot of their problems, it’s so hard to accomplish that it’s not worth the effort. Anyone who has ever known a narcissist intimately knows exactly what I’m talking about. As described in the earlier paragraph about sunk cost traps, they can get a ton of feedback via real-life bad experiences and negative consequences of their immaturity, yet they still never make the common-sense connection that the only common element in all their problems is them.

Their kids hate them, they don’t get along with family members, they constantly get passed over for promotions or worse fired, they’re chronically underemployed or unemployed, they alienate people and constantly need to find new friends, they have a string of failed friendships, romances and marriages,yet they keep living their lives the same way, using the same toolbox they’ve always used. Insanity is said to be doing the same things over and over again yet expecting different results. Thanks to the D-K effect, narcissists and other Cluster Bs are the poster children for this definition of insanity.

13) Furthermore, when immature people do get negative feedback, they tend to blame external factors like people and events rather than their blaming their own immaturity.

Again, the Shrink4men article nails it:

She blames others and circumstances for her own shortcomings or failures. The professional victim lives in “Never-Never Take Personal Responsibility Land,” which is bordered to the North by “The Land of If Only.” This allows her to blame her parents, siblings, co-workers, bosses, professors and you for her life, career and relationships not being as she thinks they should be.

She’d be running the business if only her boss recognized her talents. She’d have graduated from culinary school and been wildly successful if her prof hadn’t looked at her cross-eyed. She’d have sex with you more often if you did more of x, y, and z. Don’t fall for this malarkey, men. She’s right in that there’s someone to blame for her sad life. She need only look in the mirror to direct her blame accurately.

Simply put, narcissists and drama queens consistently externalize blame and shift it onto others, while never having accountability for their own misfortunes and failures.

And finally:

14) Overconfidence in one’s own maturity gives illusion of emotional, spiritual and social intelligence that people will buy into in the short-term but will alienate in the long-term as the true immaturity and lack of empathy eventually comes to the surface.

This is called the illusion of confidence, and this article discusses how it works:

The illusion of confidence represents the way that people value knowledge from a confident person. This would be fine if confidence and knowledge go hand in hand, but in fact there is almost an inverse relationship. A lack of knowledge is, instead, allied to overconfidence. Lack of knowledge leads to confidence, which leads to you being seen as knowledgeable.

Lets explore these ideas a little.

Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, the authors of The Invisible Gorilla, give several examples of the illusion of confidence…

They mention studies of groups of people coming together to solve a maths problem. You would expect the group to defer to the person with the greatest maths knowledge, wouldn’t you? In fact, the group deferred to the most confident person, regardless of their knowledge. In trials, in 94% of the cases, the final answer given by the group is the first answer suggested, by the most confident person present, regardless if whether it is right or wrong.

Which doctor would you rather trust, they ask; the doctor who confidently writes a prescription without any ado, or the one who consults a reference book or online diagnosis system before concluding their diagnosis? The heart says you trust the former for their confidence, the head says you should trust the latter for their use of knowledge.

This concept along with DK-effect explains why so many times the more mature non-narcissist person will defer to the judgment of the less mature person such as the narcissist. It’s because the social, spiritual and emotional incompetence of the narcissist leads the narcissist to be unjustifiably confident in their own social, spiritual and emotional competence thanks to the D-K effect. Then the illusion of confidence kicks in and the non-narcissist interprets this confidence to mean that the narcissist is actually more mature than he or she actually is.

Taking all 14 of these Dunning-Kruger observations into account, and using them to analyze maturity, it becomes easy to see why trying to make narcissists and other immature people understand the error of their ways and trying to give you credit for your own maturity are lost causes. They totally lack the cognitive tools necessary to recognize their own immaturity and correctly assess the maturity levels of others. If they had such cognitive tools, they wouldn’t be so immature in the first place.

Another aspect of narcissism that is well explained by the D-K effect and the Maturity Paradox is the fact that narcissists and other Cluster Bs is rarely seek help through therapy, yet their victims often do. Being immature and having all the incompetencies that accompany immaturity, narcissists are highly unlikely to think anything is wrong with them and to think that the problem is everyone else. Being somewhat mature and having all the competencies that accompany maturity, the victims of narcissists are more likely to emerge from the experience blaming themselves and realizing they have a lot to learn, and therefore are more willing to seek treatment.

Recommended Reading:

The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons

The Power of Persuasion: How We’re Bought and Sold by Robert Levine

Freeing Yourself from the Narcissist in Your Life by Linda Martinzez-Lewi

Linda Martinez-Lewi, author of the above book, also has a blog with audio pieces and articles about narcissism. You can find it here.

When Your Perfect Partner Goes Perfectly Wrong: A Survivor’s Guide to Loving or Leaving the Narcissist in Your Life by Mary Jo Fay

10 Responses to “Raw Concepts: The Maturity Paradox, Pt. 2”


  1. Perhaps in some situations being self-confident is more useful than being right. A self-confident person may act, fail, learn from mistakes, act again… and perhaps finally get the desired result. Meanwhile, the self-doubting competent person will know exactly what to do, but never do it, because of doubts and peer pressure.

    Being right is only useful if you believe that you are right.

    However, the path to being right starts with admitting that you may be wrong, which creates a paradox. First you have to doubt your competence, then you have to gain competence, and finally you have to trust your competence. I think many competent people have problems with the last step.

  2. Matthew Rappaport on July 6th, 2011 at 5:39 PM

    I was about as affected by my relationship with a malignant narcissist as you are. It gets better. Eventually, you’ll be comforted by the idea that she has no soul and cannot derive any true happiness out of anything. Be happy you didn’t marry this woman, which would’ve truly been the end of you.

    I also spent a ton of time on S4M. One of the most awesome sites ever created.

    On a related note, I just got done reading through your entire archives. A true tour de force. Count me among your first customers whenever that book drops.


  3. S4M ?

  4. Matthew Rappaport on July 7th, 2011 at 10:34 AM

    Shrink4Men dude. One of the Internet’s many gems.


  5. Ah, of c.
    i knew website about spy gun (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S4M)
    is a weird place to spend tons of your time on :D


  6. Robin Hanson on Dunning-Kruger.


  7. Just wanted to say thank you. I stumbled upon this blog and I had to read the entire archive. I’m nowhere near where I want to be personally, but this has been immensely helpful. Also made for interesting water cooler conversation.


  8. Thus the best way to avoid falling into the maturity paradox is to become so incredibly mature, meaning to become hypercompetent rockstar in the areas of social, emotional and spiritual intelligence, that you become immune to the D-K effect when evaluating your own maturity and the maturity of others. This is why mastering human nature (social intelligence), cultivating empathy (emotional intelligence) and pursuing enlightened superiority (spiritual intelligence) as completely as you can is so instrumental to healthy adult relationships.

    This wraps it up for me…


  9. I like how you linked DK and Narcissism.

    I spent around 4 years with a malignant narcissist, while I excercised my own codependency and jesus savior and superhero complexes. I wish I had this kind of material at hand back then.


  10. I just recently found this site, and have found myself hooked. It’s so damn interesting and helpful, and gives me a huge challenge in trying to implement these theories into my life.

    This explains so well the reasons behind actions of some narcissists and egotistical that I know. And then after realising that, I have to pull myself back into line remembering the ego trap blogged before. Constant challenges, always surfacing and never ending,it gives me a huge sense of accomplishment in my day to day life. It’s just the hidden ones I don’t know about yet that are the tricky ones.

    But more on topic, though this is applicable to almost all cases, it’s not quite as black and white. I think it’s important to mention (if what I’m saying doesn’t have a major flaw in logic that is) that there are other qualities in a person that largely influence self assessment accuracy. A lot of mature, competent people are egotistical and externally dependent despite their success, and see themselves better than they are, while on the other hand incompetent immature people might still be modest enough to see themselves as they are. An immature person on many cases will know they are immature, and as you said that is a large step in the right direction, but that doesn’t have a huge effect in lots of cases. In saying this, I still do agree and take into thought the extreme ends of the scale being exceptions of the rule, but there are lots of those who are in the middle range that are exceptions as well.

    I think there are a lot more easier and better ways than simply mastering everything to avoid the maturity paradox. Most of the time we are always trying to master it, and more often than not we never do.

    Other than that little niggle, I completely agree with this post. Keep up the blogging!