Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Dunning-Kruger Effect


It’s one of those phenomena we’ve all encountered—and puzzled over—time and time again. There's the incompetent but amazingly smug coworker whose misplaced self-confidence perversely convinces his manager the idiot is a superstar, thus earning the fraud an undeserved promotion. Then there’s the appallingly ignorant but blazingly self-confident politician who speaks with such poise and self-assurance that a huge chunk of her audience doesn’t notice she’s spouting an incomprehensible tangle of meaningless words and phrases. So it’s nice to know that scientists have actually calibrated, explained, and named this marvel: it’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

So what is the Dunning-Kruger Effect? Basically, it’s the tendency of people who are incompetent to over-estimate their own competency. Or, in Dunning and Kruger’s words, “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than knowledge.”

According to their Nobel Prize winning study Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments (, the most incompetent people are exactly the ones most convinced of their competence. “The skills that engender competence in a particular domain are often the very same skills necessary to evaluate competence in that domain—one's own or anyone else's. Because of this, incompetent individuals lack what cognitive psychologists variously term metacognition….

“In a perfect world, everyone could see the judgments and decisions that other people reach, accurately assess how competent those decisions are, and then revise their view of their own competence by comparison. However, [our studies] showed that incompetent individuals are unable to take full advantage of such opportunities. Compared with their more expert peers, they were less able to spot competence when they saw it, and as a consequence, were less able to learn that their ability estimates were incorrect…Incompetence, like anosognosia, not only causes poor performance but also the inability to recognize that one's performance is poor.”

An interesting corollary is that the most competent people usually underestimate their competence. In other words, the more you know, the more you focus on what you don’t know. And, ironically, the more inclined you are to believe that your peers know as much if not more than what you do.

Of course, none of this is news. It was Thomas Jefferson who once said, "he who knows best best knows how little he knows," while Charles Darwin observed back in 1871 that "ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge." And then there’s the British philosopher Bertrand Russell (who, ironically, never suffered much from self-doubt) who said, “the trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”


Stewart Sternberg said...

The problem I have reading this is the same problem I have reading psychological texts: for weeks I run around thinking I have all manner of psychological disorders. Now it will be a week thinking I'm incompetent and am unconsciously compensating by going around saying I'm not.

Charles Gramlich said...

Lana and I were 'just' talking about this last night. Man it is just so amazing. I see it in students all the time.

Stephanie said...

"The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity"--Yeats.

That's scary to contemplate, indeed. Especially the higher one goes up the professional ladder.

orannia said...

Sometimes, just a little knowledge can be too much :)

cs harris said...

Stewart, I've always thought that's what's wrong with so many psychiatrists' kids!

Charles, it is amazing. It's nice to know it has a name.

Stephanie, scary indeed. Especially when these idiots are in politics.

Oannia, not sure how to take that!

Steve Malley said...

And why, pray tell, did they not simply cut to the chase and call it The Bush-Cheney Effect?

Barbara Martin said...

I like Bertrand Russell's words the best.

As for the Dunning-Kruger Effect, I see that all the time in the offices I've been in. It's like the managers all wear blinkers.

Anonymous said...

I think the Dunning-Kruger Effect can be good, because it protects us against hating ourselves! i'm not sure if i would want to be aware of all my shortfalls!
here is a good video talking about the Dunning-Kruger effect: enjoy

cs harris said...

Steve, heh heh.

Barbara, that is so frustrating, that more managers aren't aware of this.

Anonymous, you may be right! Interesting video--especially the guy's line at the end about website design. Maybe that's another function of the effect--it enables us to try things we might otherwise shy away from in fear if we realized how hard they really were.

Neal Deesit said...

Though you undoubtedly felt competent to say so, Dunning and Kruger did not win the Nobel Prize for their landmark paper. They won an Ig Nobel Prize in 2000.

"For 'tis the sport to have the engineer / Hoist with his own petar"

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