Is my partner showing signs of the Dunning-Kruger effect?

Posted in Newborn.

Two first-time parents at home with a new baby will often work blissfully together as a team, only to find the wheels fall off when one goes back to work – here’s why.

New baby bliss

As an expectant mum, I made no secret of the fact that while I was thrilled about meeting my newborn, who I was sure would be an “easy baby”, I also tried to brace myself for the worst.

In the final weeks of my pregnancy, I worded my husband up to get ready for endless sleepless nights, tag team cluster feeding and 24/7 screaming. (With regard to the latter, I suggested the baby and I would take turns, if hubby didn’t pull his weight.)  

Mercifully, the reality of those first weeks at home with a newborn was much more peaceful and at times, blissful.

My husband was lucky enough to receive two weeks paternity leave, and it was a special time where we worked together as equals, learning the art of parenting and bonding as a family.

Then my partner went back to work, and everything changed.

When two become one

The day my husband returned to work, he got out of bed in the morning a first rate parent, and returned home 10 hours later borderline incompetent.

To be fair, it took a little longer than a single workday, but certainly over the first fortnight or so, my husband’s skills, from feeding and changing, to patting and shushing, began to diminish.  

When we asked around, this seemed to be a universal experience among the parents at our respective mums and dads groups.

Of course, mummy and daddy had very different explanations.

I reasoned that while I was honing my parenting skills around the clock, my husband was juggling his career, and had therefore lagged behind a little in the daddy department, which was fair enough.

His explanation was more straightforward, “It’s all in your head.”

He told me, “All us boys [at dads’ group] were treated as equals when we were on paternity leave, then the moment we’re back at work – you think we’re bungling parents!” Said with a smile, as well as a hint of genuine exasperation.

What was really happening? Had I, as the primary caregiver, correctly assessed that my partner’s parenting skills had gone off a cliff – and if so – how could he fail to see this?

New dad on phone

An interesting explanation

Usually when my partner and I disagree about something, we each state our case, then take some time out to reassess our respective positions.

One of us will usually come around to the other’s way of thinking, or suggest a compromise, or in rare cases we’ll get another opinion.

This time, hubby seemed adamant that his parenting skills would rate a perfect score on any given assessment, so I was somewhat surprised when he came back to me with a novel explanation known as the “Dunning-Kruger effect”.  

He excitedly told me that in 1995, a 44-year-old man named McArthur Wheeler smeared lemon juice all over his face and robbed a bank. Because lemon juice can be used as ‘invisible ink’, he was absolutely certain that the lemon juice would make him invisible to security cameras.

I wondered aloud what this had to do with parenting.

This incident caught the attention of Social Psychologist, Professor David Dunning, who wondered if the people most lacking in intelligence or ability may also be the worst placed to appreciate their incompetence, and therefore over-estimate their own abilities.

Dunning and a student of his, Justin Kruger, tested this theory with a series of experiments, and in 1999 published a paper, with the rather humorous title, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognising One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”.

Since then, the phenomenon of the least-skilled people believing they are the best has become known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, and it has found a special place in popular culture. Most people can relate, because it’s something we observe frequently in other people.

Was my husband accusing me of overestimating my own parenting skills? I gave him just a bit more rope …

Dunning-Kruger for new parents

He went on to explain that Dunning himself famously said, the over-confident airhead “is someone we’ve all met.”

Then, in a rare moment of insight that reaffirmed my love for him, my husband said, “But the original intention of the 1999 paper was to encourage introspection; Dunning and Kruger’s opinion was that the first place we should all look for someone who thinks they’re better than they are, is in the mirror.”

In an extremely roundabout way, he was admitting he had overestimated his parenting skills. That he himself was showing signs of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

In a myriad of small ways, he could see there was room for improvement with respect to his parenting technique. Like nappy changes; he’d noticed I would do 10 minutes “pants off time” to prevent nappy rash, or use a barrier cream.

He’d also lost confidence getting bub to sleep, which had frustrated him, and had been quietly checking out my form – I’d changed my method slightly as the weeks passed, and was getting better results. He was eager to learn the new way.

He didn’t say, “You were right”, but I suppose two miracles in one day would have been too much to ask for.

The final fascinating twist that Dunning and Kruger managed to prove, is that while people of low skill overestimate their abilities; people who are highly skilled almost universally underestimate their abilities.

For me, this rang true. I was in the habit of questioning my abilities as a mum on a daily basis, and it felt good when my husband pointed out how well I seemed to understand bub’s nuances and preferences (albeit they’re subject to change on a weekly basis!).

I reassured him he wasn’t a “hopeless” parent, and was actually doing a pretty stellar job – for a part-timer.


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