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Project Runway – the Dunning-Kruger Effect in action January 28, 2013

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches.
Tags: , , , ,

I just caught the first episode of Season 11 of Project Runway, and we started right off with a great example of a Cognitive Bias;  The Dunning-Kruger Effect.

This is one of the scarier biases out there, upsetting enough that I don’t do a class on it when I’m teaching kids about Brain Glitches.

Basically the bias is this:  Less qualified people tend to be overconfident in their abilities.  More highly qualified people will underestimate their abilities.  Studies have shown that, when measuring expertise, people in the lowest quartile:

  • tend to overestimate their own level of skill;
  • fail to recognize genuine skill in others;
  • fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy;
  • recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they are exposed to training for that skill


When we need help with some area that we are unfamiliar with, we naturally like to feel the person we are relying on is capable, we need that reassurance.  But if that person says “Oh, yes, I’m a total expert in this field, you can trust that I can do this!” then it’s less likely that they really know what they are talking about.

So now to the first episode of Project Runway.  I’m something of a Project Runway geek, I must admit.  As much as I dislike all the reality show gossip and trashtalking they include, I really enjoy seeing the challenges thrown at the designers, and the different ways these very creative people approach these challenges.  (I even sent in a suggestion for a challenge once, the mother-daughter challenge, which they used almost verbatim!)

The challenge this time was to create a garment inspired by New York, which is a very wide-open challenge, and lets the designers really show the judges their skill and design aesthetic.  They had one full day to work, and then a couple of hours the next day to finish up.   One designer, Emily (from Falls Church) in her “talking to the camera interviews” said, essentially, “The other designers can just pack up and go home now.  I may be only 24, but I’m really good and super talented and I’m going to win this”.  Uh-oh, you can see what’s coming.

Jump ahead to one hour before the end of the first day.  Emily has only a partial muslin pattern made for her outfit, and nothing of the actual garment even begun.  By PR standards, this is a major warning of a trainwreck to come.  The next morning she quickly puts together some sort of organza bib thing using hot-glue, and one of her teammates kindly whips up a quick mini skirt so her model will not walk the runway naked.

So much fail!

The judges quite correctly call this one of the most unfinished garments ever to be shown on the show.  Emily is out, and justly so.

So what happened here?  From her portfolio, Emily obviously has some skill and talent.  So perhaps she has no time management ability?  Or perhaps she has never tried to make a garment under the time pressure of this kind of challenge?  Does being on camera make her nervous enough to choke?

I thought about what I would do if I were going to go on PR myself.  (My sewing skills are not actually up to that standard, so that’s not really under consideration.  It takes me a whole evening just to make a simple pair of pants from a pattern.)  I’d certainly spend at least a day at Mood beforehand, going through every shelf of fabric and making mental notes about what fabrics they have where, so I could find exactly what I want right away.  I’d study all the recent shows from the major fashion designers so as not to inadvertantly copy them.  And I would not even consider trying out for the show unless I had tested my ability to be handed a challenge and make an original garment in a single day.  If I couldn’t do that, in a room full of distractions, I’d have no business going on this kind of show.

Some seasons it seems like the producers have deliberately chosen to include an unqualified designer just so they can be out first.  Somebody really interesting, or totally off the wall, or a complete space cadet, but with little enough sewing skill that they are likely to crash and burn right away, so none of the really talented competitors have to be the first one out.  I don’t think that’s the case here, though.  I think she just overestimated her ability, and that’s something sadly happens all the time.

The person who says “Trust me, I’m an expert” is often the last person you should trust.



1. SirTJ - January 29, 2013

Yes, there are many times the self-proclaimed expert is actually quite poor. However, many times, the person who claims to be an expert actually IS an expert. So, you need to find out the basis for their expertise or a third-party referral.

This does explain why creationists and climate change deniers are often those who know the least about science.


ubi dubium - January 29, 2013

True, but the effect does not indicate that people claiming to be experts never are, just that people who are not experts often claim more expertise than they deserve, and real experts often claim less.

I like third party approval as a backup – often more reliable than self-assessment.


2. the chaplain - January 29, 2013

You can sew a pair of pants in an evening? I’m impressed. I can barely sew a button in half an evening. In fact, I’ve been known to skip sewing altogether and simply opt for ripping the old garment into cleaning rags and buying a new garment to wear.


ubi dubium - January 30, 2013

Once I took apart a pair of old pants that had worn out and used them as a pattern for a new pair. I’ve done some fancier sewing (Renfair gowns) but it takes me forever to do it. Of course they have dressmaker’s dummies, proper cutting tables, and all the best equipment, which I don’t. Still, I’m blown away by anybody that can create an outfit from scratch, without a pattern, in just a day.



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