What is the Dunning-Kruger effect, and what role does this condition play in dive incidents and accidents?

Often, dive accidents and incidents are due to the Dunning-Kruger effect. We define this as diver error caused by the dissonance between the diver’s overconfidence in his own abilities and his actual abilities. What are common signs of a Dunning-Kruger diver, and how do you avoid becoming one?

Diving is a very safe sport, with quite a small number of serious injuries and fatalities.

However, according to a recent report by Divers Alert Network, a disproportionately large number of serious injuries and fatalities befell recreational divers on pleasure and sightseeing dives. In fact, 66 percent of fatalities in the 2016 report fall into this category. A considerably smaller proportion of incidents occur in training situations, when experts work within set training parameters. Many accidents are due to diver error, as mentioned. And one of the key drivers may be the psychological phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

The Psychology: Unskilled and unaware

Two Cornell University professors, David Dunning and Justin Kruger, first explained their findings in 1999. Their research indicated a cognitive bias in novices within widespread fields, from tennis to medicine, to chess. The bias presents in novices as a belief that they are much more competent than they really are. As Dunning put it, “If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent. The skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.”

These blind spots in cognition leave novices in any given field, including scuba diving, with difficulty recognizing their own shortcomings. This may lead to inflated self-assessments of skill and knowledge level.

Dunning-Kruger indicators in scuba diving

Scuba diving is a never-ending learning curve of evolving skills and new technology. Naturally, in those first few qualifying dives, there is much to learn. During the first 10 to 100 dives, novice divers often feel a rush of confidence disproportionate to their competence. The curve of confidence and perceived competence (picture above) often peaks in that range. Then, after gaining some knowledge, the diver forms a more realistic assessment of their actual abilities. The curve of the diver’s confidence drops away as they begin Rescue, Divemaster or technical-diver training.

Subsequently, confidence and competence grow together as a diver gains new skills and experiences over the longer term. Although note that even experts lack the supreme confidence of those at the early peak. They understand that there is always more to learn.

Signs of a Dunning-Kruger diver

Divers in that initial 10 to 100 logged-dives range are often receptive to advice and open to learning new scuba skills, or receiving coaching. Those at the peak of the early confidence curve, however, often exhibit traits that can frustrate their buddies and dive center staff or, potentially, lead to hazardous behavior. Here are a few signs of a Dunning-Kruger diver: have you (or someone you know) ever exhibited any of these behaviors?

Ignoring equipment advice

Having the right equipment for your level of diving and environment is key. It would be unwise, for example, to take warm-water rated regulator into cold water. Local instructors, divemasters and dive center staff will often make recommendations based on your planned dives and experience level, whether that’s having a reel and SMB, using nitrox, or the suitability of your BCD, regulator, exposure suit or hood.

The Dunning-Kruger diver will often spurn the advice of divers more experienced or qualified in that diving activity or environment. For example, they may insist on taking gloves, a pointer or a shaker — despite a ban in the marine park or advice not to use them from a local guide. Alternatively, the diver may insist that they don’t need a hood or gloves in a tougher environment, finding themselves cold as the dive progresses to depth or exposing them to hazards on a wreck dive.

Solution: Listen to the advice of experienced local divers and staff. They know the waters, procedures and suitable equipment for the dives.

Ignoring training course advice

If you want to advance your diver training, who better to consult than your instructor? They know the training standards, curriculum, and requirements of the various training courses in detail. Especially if they’ve already completed some training with you, the instructor can give you honest and constructive feedback as to whether you’re a suitable candidate.

The Dunning-Kruger diver will often be wholeheartedly convinced they’re capable of being a divemaster, instructor or technical diver after their first training dives, despite knowing little of the training standards, curriculum, and responsibilities. Conversely, the diver may be offended if he receives delicate advice from an instructor that he should gain more experience before progressing. The Dunning-Kruger diver will often ignore this advice and push to sign up in the course with an alternate instructor.

Solution: While ambition and enthusiasm for further training are admirable qualities, take the advice you receive and learn to walk before you run if so advised. Taking your time can prevent needless risks to yourself and fellow divers in your group.

Spurning technique advice

Sometimes when supervising certified divers, instructors, divemasters and guides will offer advice and tips outside of the confines of a course. This can be on a liveaboard or during a guided boat or shore dive. It may be that, having observed the diver in the water, the professional offers advice on technique such as getting in/out of their equipment, buoyancy control, positioning, weighting, finning technique or even tips for diving motor skills such as deploying an SMB from depth more effectively.

The Dunning-Kruger diver will often rebuff, discard or discount advice from the professional diver. They may even, in some cases, attempt to rationalize their behavior or argue that they’re correct and the professional is wrong. For example, a diver with volatile buoyancy may be convinced the equipment is at fault rather than accept advice from a professional.

Solution: Instructors, divemasters and guides sometimes offer coaching to recreational divers to help make the diver’s experience safer and more enjoyable on future dives. Don’t be offended if offered advice. These people are trying to help you and your buddies have a better experience.

Ignoring the rules (part 1)

Training agencies set procedures and limits based on data from thousands of training dives, test dives and accident statistics gathered from across the planet. Depth limits, dive procedures and training recommendations filter down to form the ever-evolving training standards we all agree upon. For example, it requires additional training to safely dive beyond recreational limits, inside wrecks or in a drysuit.

The Dunning-Kruger diver will often flaunt training limits — even reveling in ignoring them as a badge of honor. They’ll often regard their survival as misguided validation that they have the skills required to repeat the feat. They may also take unsuitably qualified buddies beyond their training limits, putting others at risk as well.

Solution: Agencies carefully research the standards for each training level. They back these up with valid statistical and educational information. If you seek more challenging dives, get the correct training first.

Ignoring the rules (Part 2)

Each diving environment is subtly different. The entries, exits, boat procedures, marine interaction and local etiquette can vary wildly from region to region. The procedures for diving a wreck are different to those for diving a reef. There are hundreds of variables. Local dive-industry professionals define their procedures within the briefings to minimize risks and ensure group safety in coordination with boat crews and local authorities.

The Dunning-Kruger diver dismisses the local procedures and instructions in the briefing. They may feel they already have the necessary knowledge or believe their method is superior. This can lead the diver to cause safety issues that he could otherwise easily avoid. Diving headaches such as the diver not entering/exiting the water correctly, signaling as required, being swept away in a current or, alternatively, raising the alarm due to buddy separation, are usually due to the diver not paying attention to (or disregarding) procedures.

Solution: The procedures that are in place exist for valid reasons — to preserve the dive site and, importantly, diver safety. Listen to the dive briefing. If anything is unclear, ask for clarification.

The metacognition we call the Dunning-Kruger effect should cause us all to pause and consider our own actions. The effect may explain the occasionally frustrating overconfidence of some of your dive buddies. Realizing that we’re all still learning may help us seek out the best advice and training. We can all improve as divers, becoming safer and more skillful in the water.

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