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Is the Dunning-Kruger Effect Dumbing Down our Cosmetic Industry?

August 28, 2018

For all of those readers who don’t like my long-winded, exploration-style tone I’ll give you a spoiler and say ‘yes, yes, I actually think it is’. There, now you can go back to polishing your own ego’s while the rest of us think.

I’ve been mulling about this topic for some time now and had come to the conclusion that the fast-food style way that ‘research’ can be carried out by cosmetic brand owners is not entirely helpful. The way that there are no longer processes and gates to go through in order to access information, the way that many people feel frustrated by the idea that actual experimentation might go on and on and on for months or even (God forbid) over a year before a formula is well and truly born.  Even the way that we become (or feel) qualified to act on this information.  The general expectation seems to be that one can become a cosmetic chemist after taking a short course of study, maybe online but maybe not, then make a couple of things in your own time for your own use and then voila, you’ve made it.  I don’t personally think that the title of cosmetic chemist should be banded around lightly and should NEVER apply to anyone who hasn’t successfully scaled up an idea at a third-party facility that they don’t have ultimate control over.  And only after doing that, at least one of their products. should have become a commercial and scientific success (peer-reviewed/ stability tested/ assayed etc) before that person can truly count themselves initiated. Oh, and even then only in THAT product genre and not necessarily in everything.  It’s a big deal and a long process.

There are many people out there that own their own brand, having  gone from zero to hero in terms of sales only to realise as their brand took off that they absolutely can’t trust anyone else with their manufacturing or anything?  These people are not artists or perfectionists or even people interested in owning the whole process because they like joined-up-thinking. Instead these people are control freaks scared that someone who knows something might just come along and say ‘what the fuck are you doing here?’.  Even then it’s not a Fair Acclompli unless their conformation bias wins out and that’s what this is about.

So the Dunning Kruger Effect was first described in 1999 apparently. I only heard about this last week which means that I’ve been pondering about this needlessly for nearly 20 years when the answer was there all along. Bugger.

The best way to describe this effect is with this graph:

What it basically boils down to is that the higher the level of incompetence a person has, the more likely they are to be unable to recognise their own incompetence. Not only that but they are also likely to feel extremely confident and severely over-estimate their abilities.

How I see this play out in my working life is as follows (without malice).

People think that they are accumulating lots of knowledge by reading a lot of stuff online and making the occasional thing in their kitchen. They think they are having that knowledge validated by making real sales online or in another low-barrier-to-entry environment.  This can translate into a financial win and for some people this can then lead them to feel that they are experts, not only in their way of doing things but in general, as a cosmetic chemist.

In reality what’s happened is that the cognitive bias of the individual has barely ever been challenged. In fact, what I often see is that every time the brand feels challenged they retreat back into their sphere of control. This may ultimately limit the growth of that brand but may not, depending on the goals of the brand owner.  But what it does do is leave a growing and uncomfortable gap between them and the outside world where knowledge can and should be challenged, tested and analysed.  Often this all comes crashing down when these brands try to expand overseas, get listings with retailers that demand paperwork or investors that want to see real and legal proof and backing about what underpins a business.

I also see evidence of this happening in my chemistry classes.

When I started teaching cosmetic chemistry I wanted to help people grow the onion rather than peel it. I wanted them to start from basics- the skin and hair – and build up their knowledge and understanding of what they need in order to formulate products that did exactly that. However, what I often see now is people wanting to just go home with a recipe, a peeling the onion or top-down approach but not one that gets to anything of any depth.  That worries me.

When building something up you can’t stop and have a product until you’ve well and truly thought out your foundations and began to build. You can’t stop until you are at a point where you have a simple something. Simple yet well thought out.  When peeling an onion you can stop before you’ve even really got started as you’ve already got the product there in the same way as you would get if you just went in one door of the class empty-handed and came out with a replicable recipe in the other hand five minutes later.  The investment and effort were as shallow as the learning.

But neither of those scenarios look like being an issue until you think back to the Dunning-Kruger graph.  The building-up scenario requires the true building on knowledge, problem solving, crafting and growing whereas the peeling-back scenario requires nothing more than validation that your own pre-emptive bias can be realised and that is self-evident in the finished product.

But does that matter?

It matters to be because you the top-down approach stifles true creativity allowing us only to achieve small incremental changes on what already exists.  It also empowers this bias and un-examined way of thinking whereas the build-up way does exactly the opposite.

The only issue for me, as a teacher, is that I take in a class full of people who feel they know a lot already (I know everything) and push them over to the right a bit (There is more to this than I thought) or  (I’m never going to understand this).  Given enough time, some personal follow-up lab work and a bit more guidance people can then move into the part of the graph where things start to make sense.  If I can’t get everyone there after 2 or 3 days of classes I’m left with a class of people who go out feeling like they know less than when they came in.  Some people tend to get a bit angry at that point…

Angry People and the Desire to Buy Confidence.

Some people who do start to doubt their own skills or ability feel angry about that for reasons that only they truly understand.  I sometimes intersect with these people when they come to me for a solution.  In my experience some of these people feel the answer to their current discomfort and their woes is to transfer the risks they now realise they face onto someone else and that as long as they can pay they will be OK. In theory that is relatively sensible, you engage a professional to  help fix things for you and business carries on as usual. However,   Dunning Kluger also applies here (oh yes indeedie it does…)

A professional service provider is not paid to fix your crap, they are paid to do a specific job and in doing that specific job they may actually uncover another issue, an issue that is not theirs to fix just because they found it.   You see Dunning Kluger is all about misplaced confidence but alongside that goes misplaced everything including the ability to take responsibility for their own business in its entirety.  So, for example a professional who agrees to do your stability testing for you is not responsible for what happens should the product fail, even if that means you miss your own launch deadline and have to let people down.  Dunning Kluger might have given you the misplaced confidence in your ability but the cold-hard bitch of a testing lab result doesn’t care about false or misplaced optimism, it only cares about binary results – pass or fail. OK, sometimes you can get conditional passes or grey areas but that’s another story.

The gap between misplaced confidence and reality can be a source of much angst and bluster but again, that can be overcome by brand owners who take a step back and embrace their new-found reality and, as a consequence of that, move one more step to the right of the graph, towards true understanding.

So what to do, what to do?

Do a Kendrick (Lamar), sit down and be humble.

OK so that’s just one option, the rest is really up to you and me. I try, whenever I see evidence that the Dunning Kluger thing is happening, to nip it in the bud. It’s only human to try to self soothe by surrounding ourselves with confirmation that we are actually OK, on the right track, doing well etc.  I understand that but it is also my job as a consultant to shake that comfort zone so that we can all grow together, hand-in-hand if you want that and if you don’t that’s cool too, just don’t ask me to validate that.


Amanda x


3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 1, 2018 4:45 am

    “There, now you can go back to polishing your own ego’s while the rest of us think.” You’re my hero!

    If ones comfort zone is not shaken, then we have no martinis. So shake away!

  2. Suki Miller permalink
    October 23, 2018 4:13 pm

    I feel very blessed in that each time I enter my work area, with the intention of making something, luckily, I do manymany things wrong & either very obviously-accidentally make a product that is barely what I intended, by the skin of my teeth..or much more often, boff that objective so irreversibly badly, that I cannot even begin to fool myself or others into thinking I meant to make something else entirely, & THAT is why my something in no way resembles the something I originally was attempting to make.
    Unfortunately, I’ve been studying & practicing making herbal remedies for a little over 22yrs, so I am sometimes prone to the Trump-like heights on the Dunning-Kruger Effect Graph..that is, until I recall that I’ve only been studying cosmetics-formulating for, maybe 3yrs or 4 now, & therefore, I’m super-green, & truly more lost than found.
    Thanks, yet again, Amanda, for reminding me of these inescapable truths,
    Muchlove, suki

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      October 24, 2018 7:31 pm

      Thanks for sharing your experience with us Suki, I hope you enjoy many more happy moments of discovery in the lab.

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