Steve Cuno: The Dunning-Kruger Effect gets in the way of our empathy

It was difficult for Mozart to imagine what it was like to not be Mozart.


When the string quartet’s second violinist didn’t arrive, a child volunteered to stand in. Despite having had no opportunity to practice, his execution was flawless. When his father expressed amazement, the child said, “Surely you don’t have to practice to play second violin, do you?”

The child, it would seem, simply could not fathom what it was like not to be Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Charming tribute to Mozart’s genius aside, the possibly apocryphal anecdote illustrates a common thinking error. It is tempting, easy, and quite human to mistake one’s personal universe for the universe, to dismiss anything that falls outside one’s experience as trivial or even non-existent.

An axiom often attributed to various Native American tribes, in fact first penned in 1895 by Mary T. Lathrap in her poem “Walk Softly,” urges withholding judgment short of walking a mile in another’s moccasins. It’s a worthy reminder, but it cries out for an admitted mood-spoiling, stark disclaimer: Even so, all you’ll really understand is how the walk made you feel.

Not that I have anything against borrowed-moccasin walks. On the contrary, I am all for them. Even the briefest stroll in another’s footwear can go a long way toward mitigating the Dunning-Kruger Effect, that is, the tendency toward overconfidence due to not realizing how little we know.

“You should be able to shoot a half-hour sitcom in a single day,” said no one who ever worked in motion picture production. “It should be easy to keep diners’ orders straight,” said no one who ever served tables. “Just kick him where it counts,” said no one who was ever in a bar fight.

And: “They’re just too lazy to get a job,” said no one who was ever unhoused. “There’s no such thing as systemic racism,” said no one who was ever pulled over for Driving While Not White. “My pronouns are kiss my ass,” said no one whose gender or orientation had ever placed them in mortal danger.

Still, one must take care not to let an iota of experience have more of a mind-closing than mind-opening effect. “I built my career without help from the EEOC, and so can they,” said one acquaintance, oblivious to how his low melanin count increased his odds of obtaining a good education, high-paying job, and mortgage.

“I came here legally, and so should they,” said another, ignoring exceptions the U.S. carved out for his country of origin. “Don’t be afraid of COVID,” said Donald Trump, ignoring his privileged access to some of the world’s most competent medical care.

Research suggests that higher socioeconomic status correlates with a decline in empathy. Just as Mozart couldn’t imagine not being Mozart, people in favorable circumstances may have a hard time identifying with people in less favorable ones. (Before you dash off a letter to the editor, permit me to acknowledge the existence of wealthy people who brim with empathy. I even met one once.)

Loath though I am to invoke former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, his nod to “unknown unknowns” was spot-on. It only seems circular to admit that we are unaware of what we don’t know. The self-honesty required to admit as much, and the humility required to acknowledge that not all of our good fortune is of our own doing, is worth seeking. With luck, we might just experience an increase in empathy.

Meanwhile, we would do well to remember a piece of advice from my friend Name Withheld. Why her parents named her Name Withheld is beyond me, but that’s another subject. Anyway, what she said was, “What should you do when the experience is not yours? Shut the **** up and listen.”

Steve Cuno

Steve Cuno is a recovering ad writer and the author of five books. He lived in the Salt Lake City area for 43 years and now lives in Portland, Oregon. You can see more of his work at www.stevecuno.com.