So you didn’t qualify… Part 2: Dunning-Kruger

Seems like ages ago (Feb 25) when I posted the first part of this series, lord knows a lot has changed, but I wanted to get back to it eventually so here we are. We ended part 1 talking about how we needed to do an honest assessment of where we are at so we can figure out where we need to go.


At the end of my second year of debate I had a lot of problems/bad habits, but I want to keep our focus small so lets just focus on one thing: too many cards. I was obsessed with evidence- cutting it, reading it in speeches, I thought evidence was 99% of debate. When I gave a 2NC on politics that was 8 mn long maybe 45 seconds of that would not be reading cards.


Now, this belief manifested itself in a lot of ways, but again to keep it small I want to focus on how this obsession derailed my ability to see rounds clearly/understand why I was losing. I have written a lot in the last year or two about why you don’t need a coach for the things you THINK you need a coach for- cutting cards, listening to redos etc. What you need a coach for is to help you overcome the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people wrongly overestimate their knowledge or ability in a specific area. This tends to occur because a lack of self-awareness prevents them from accurately assessing their skills.

The concept is based on a 1999 paper by Cornell University psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger. The pair tested participants on their logic, grammar, and sense of humor, and found that those who performed in the bottom quartile rated their skills far above average. For example, those in the 12th percentile self-rated their expertise to be, on average, in the 62nd percentile.

The researchers attributed the trend to a problem of metacognition—the ability to analyze one’s own thoughts or performance. “Those with limited knowledge in a domain suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach mistaken conclusions and make regrettable errors, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it,” they wrote.

I learned about this in my freshman psych 101 class at the end of the year, and I immediately started trying to figure out how I could take advantage of this fact to get an edge on my opponents. We’ll get back to that later, but before we do lets make sure we are understanding the concept fully with some examples.


The easiest way to understand the DK is by thinking about a game, any game you have ever played even tic tac toe. If you play with someone who doesn’t have a lot of experience/understand tic tac toe you can use the correct strategy to make it so that you can only win, and do it it pretty frequently. The person playing against you who doesn’t understand this strategy will think the game is rigged or that you are a super genius.


What is going on here?

Player A is very new, and doesn’t really understand the game

Player B is not new, does understand the game, and so uses a very basic strategy

Player A is not experienced enough to decipher/interpret what the other player is doing. Since it doesn’t conform to their self image to say “i am getting beaten by a simple strategy because I am ignorant” they instead cook up wild theories (judge screw)


Since everyone has been staying at home I have been playing more video games, specifically Heroes of the Storm, which is a team game. At first i was very, very, very, very bad and a big part of it was I didn’t understand what was happening. So I busted out some portable skills and did a little research. Now that I know how the game mechanics work I can see people making a lot of simple, objective mistakes. When these people score poorly/lose they then lash out and blame everything but themselves.


Now, at this point a lot of coaches can relate/think of students who did something similar. The thing is, the students are not always doing this because they are ill mannered. As backwards as it is they are venting their frustration with an unjust world. They don’t think they are just losing randomly, they think that they are being cheated because they are doing what is SUPPOSED to work according to their understanding of the world. The problem is THEY don’t understand the world, and it is very hard to fix something like that on your own, without a coach.


In my case I got to my first debate camp and our in lab activity on day 1 was to give a speech extending a starter packet disad. We were given like 5 minutes or something, and I got up to give my speech with approximately 900 cards to read. I gave my speech, it was super fast and I read a lot of cards, and then I sat back and waited for the applause to rush over me like a wave.

“That was terrible. I mean, you’re good, or i guess you may be good, but yea that was pretty bad”

Then we just sat there in silence for like 30 seconds. I don’t know if they were thinking of what to say next or just increasing the dramatic effect. Then they said

“Cards are 50% of debate, so you are killing it in that 50%. but you aren’t even trying to win the other 50% so the best you can get is an F”


Somehow that clicked with me. I hadn’t been wrong in what i was thinking, I really was doing the thing I was doing quite well, my problem was bigger picture: I thought one thing determined if I won or lost, but no matter how well I did that one thing it couldn’t make up for all the other things I wasn’t doing ( you know, debating).


Unfortunately this didn’t really have material effects in the moment. It took another year or so till the TOC. Before the tournament I did a preposterous amount of card cutting. We got to the tournament and I was paired against a few “rivals” in the first 5 debates. In each debate we absolutely crushed evidence wise- broke new affs, new neg strategies, all of it was grade A. We lost all 3 of them. Basically in all of them the judges didn’t even read the key cards, see how much better then the other team’s they were, and certainly didn’t give me the adulation I deserved dammit!


But in hindsight, now that I know there is more to debate than cards, I can see that I did not do the better debating in those rounds. It’s not that the people I was debating were “better”- ie they did not make a conscious choice to read less cards or go slower in order to win the judge- they were objectively WORSE at those key parts of debate. Instead of taking advantage of their weakness, I turned it into their strength. Looking back I can see a pattern of me just banging my head against the wall over and over and over again- and its not just debate, its tons of things in life where I was getting DKed like crazy.


So after we couldn’t clear something inside me changed and I was like ok well we are just gonna practice the opposite direction in these last few rounds. We will go really slow and go 1 off K cause we don’t do that. In our first round we

-read an argument we didn’t really understand against an aff that VERY CLEARLY turned the link

-the other team went way to fast and read a million cards but never at any point just slowed down and said “here is the fatal flaw in the negatives argument: its backwards, i’ll explain why”

-we won


The judge is giving the RFD saying things like “best 2NC ever” and I’m just shaking my head, enraged. Not at anyone else, at myself. At how stupidly I had wasted ENORMOUS amounts of my time actually undermining my success rather than contributing to it. The other team- they were angry, very convinced that they had just gotten screwed.


So, this was how to improve on your own, how does this help you that I’m saying you need a coach for this?


Well, you have probably already gotten some “coaching” over the course of the year- what I mean is negative feedback. People who gave you criticism that you dismissed because they were a “bad judge” or some other reason. What I want you to do is think back and try to make a list of as many of these comments as you can (if you keep a judge notebook this will be easy). Now, I don’t mean go back and say “oh yea this judge said I was ugly”- that is not what I mean by negative feedback. I mean criticisms of your debate/arguments etc that you dismissed because the judge was in your opinion not good enough to change your view.


This list should theoretically be quite long. If you aren’t clearing at tournaments and are debating all year that means you have a sizable number of losses-if you can’t remember any criticism you got after losing a bunch of debates that is a red flag for sure. That means you are super deep down the rabbit hole not even listening to your judges and for you the major improvement you need to make is just to listen, you aren’t to the point yet where the rest is going to help. That’s not a mean or pessimistic assessment, I’ve been there too, but you aren’t going to get “out” of there until you face facts.

What you are trying to do with this list is look for patterns. If you realize “hey 5 different judges told me the same thing” then its time to acknowledge you may have a problem there as statistically you aren’t likely to get 5 total baddies to all figure out/agree on the same criticism. If you had 5 truly bad judges you would get 5 wildly different RFDs like

-you had nice shoes

-i voted on T even though you didn’t read it

-they were mean to you in cx

-neither side discussed the topic on the ballot because it was an old ballot and I didn’t know that

-side A was more persuasive, while side be was more reasoned, so i voted for the side that aligned with my political bias


See, no pattern, Random bad judges be random and bad. People who are frequently judged by people with no debate experience can tell you what a truly bad RFD sounds like. If you are frequently getting

-slow down

-be more clear

-you aren’t explaining things

-do comparison/impact calc


Those could be random if you got it once, but when you lose multiple debates and they keep coming up its pretty unlikely. Even if you absolutely disagree- multiple people have told you that you are the clearest debater they have ever seen- that doesn’t mean there isn’t a pattern. The pattern may be that you don’t adapt very well to your judges, it’s going to be different for everyone.


Let’s close by playing a quick game of “what’s your offense”. This is what I do in lab when the students are digging their heels in on something silly like “you shouldn’t flow” or “the aff has to read framework the second the pairing comes out”. Basically, you can’t say anything for your side that isn’t an offensive justification for it. So what is the OFFENSE for not doing a deep dive like this and thinking for just one second that some of your judges may have been correct? The worst thing that can happen is.. you do 30 minutes of drills/practice to try and improve in the area they thought you were deficient? When you weigh that vs the potential upside of winning more debates it isn’t really a contest.










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