The Three Hardest Words

A “know-it-all”  believes  that they possess a greater mind and wealth of knowledge. They show a determination to demonstrate it at every chance, they’re really annoying. We all know one, and we can’t stand them. Named after Cornell psychologist David Dunning and his then student Justin Kruger, the Dunning-Kruger effect is the observation that people who are uninformed or unskilled in a given field tend to believe they are much more knowledgeable than they are in reality (Kruger & Dunning, 1999). Accordingly,  bad drivers believe they’re good drivers, the humourless think they’re  funny, and people who’ve never held a position in  public office think they make  great presidents – Donald Trump.  Stupid people don’t know they’re stupid!

The dunning kruger effect
Dunning-Kruger effect

But Trump isn’t the sole victim of the Dunning-Kruger effect. As children most of us pretended to know the answer to unanswerable questions (Waterman et al., 2001; Waterman & Blades, 2011). With maturity comes honesty for most of us, but still we remain selective “know-it-alls” depending on our audience. I lie in response to my children’s questions all the time and they think I know everything. It gives me a position of power because sometimes “I don’t know” just doesn’t work . “White lies” are an important component of our social fabric, it keeps society running and gets the kids out the door on time in the morning (Rodriguez & Ryave, 1990). Predictable wisdom suggests “I love you” are the most difficult words to say, but in reality saying “I don’t know” when questioned is much tougher because its not the answer people want to hear.  “I don’t  know”  is an really painful place to sit, because with not knowing comes incredible social risk and vulnerability. But we don’t have to “not know” for any length of time anymore because the internet is instantaneous, and is increasingly becoming our primary source of information. People now experience an inflated sense of having acquired knowledge—we have the feeling of knowing, without the  benefit of the experience of having learned (Fisher et al., 2015). Not knowing is not only an important lesson it’s an opportunity,  because at the other side of “I don’t know”  is every creative and innovative idea. The richness of life comes from not having the answer –  a journey into the unknown.

Running and sport makes brings comfort with not knowing, because it’s often a journey that’s started with an unknown end point and an experience that constantly changes – sometimes great, often bad, occasionally easy but more times hard. A run with the best intentions can  end in disaster and a dreaded run can turn into a remarkable experience. Embracing “I don’t know” removes limits because not knowing is a motivation to try  – can I? will I be able? Always knowing the answers means we aren’t challenging ourselves with the right questions  and robbing ourselves of the freedom to explore other possibilities and push our limits.



Fisher M, Goddu MK & Keil FC. (2015). Searching for explanations: How the Internet inflates estimates of internal knowledge. J Exp Psychol Gen 144, 674-687.


Kruger J & Dunning D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. J Pers Soc Psychol 77, 1121-1134.


Rodriguez N & Ryave A. (1990). Telling lies in everyday life: Motivational and organizational consequences of sequential preferences, vol. 13.


Waterman A, Blades M & Spencer C. (2001). Interviewing Children and Adults: The Effect of Question Format on the Tendency to Speculate, vol. 15.


Waterman AH & Blades M. (2011). Helping children correctly say “I don’t know” to unanswerable questions. J Exp Psychol Appl 17, 396-405.


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