The Dunning-Kruger Effect

“O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us!” ~Robt. Burns

A couple years ago a friend asked if I were familiar with the Dunning-Kruger Effect. I can’t recall the context in which he asked this but I’d not heard of it and he explained it like this: “People who are incompetent don’t know they are incompetent and it gives them an unwarranted sense of confidence.”

Confidence can be very persuasive. And the whole notion dovetails neatly with other contemporary themes, including the tendency of many people to believe others who are sincere. In point of fact, sincerity is not truth. But it can be persuasive, and that’s another story. This Dunning-Kruger notion intrigued me and I went home to examine it further on Wikipedia, which has a fairly extensive explanation beginning with this concise summary:

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which relatively unskilled persons suffer illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than it really is. Dunning and Kruger attributed this bias to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their own ineptitude and evaluate their own ability accurately. Their research also suggests corollaries: highly skilled individuals may underestimate their relative competence and may erroneously assume that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others.

The bias was first experimentally observed by David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University in 1999. They postulated that the effect is the result of internal illusion in the unskilled, and external misperception in the skilled: “The miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.”

Harvard Business Review noted the study in a 2005 article on assessing performance titled “Those Who Can’t, Don’t Know It.” There’s no doubt that examples abound in all walks of life, but in many occupations such incompetence has a way of weeding itself out. Take Major League Baseball, for example. You may believe you’re All-Star caliber, but if you can’t field a grounder or hit a curve ball, pretty soon someone is going to notice no matter how confident you are. There’s a whole stadium filled with people who can see what your skill levels are.

There are other professions, however, where skills — or lack thereof — are less visible. And I’ve begun to wonder if the Tony Robbins possibility thinkers are making a lot of their money by telling incompetents that “yes, you can do anything.” Is everything really possible if we only but believe?

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Reading about the Dunning-Kruger Effect helped me understand another phenomenon that has sprung up during my lifetime, contest shows like American Idol and America’s Got Talent. Having never seen these shows I can only talk from hearsay here, and am open to being corrected if I am wrong. Every once in a while I would hear about a particularly untalented person performing on the show who had to take a public blistering from acid-tongued Simon Cowell. My question would be, how did someone so lacking in talent make it to the show? Was the purpose simply to humiliate them? Now maybe Simon’s trademark was humiliating everyone, but is it possible the show’s producers took a measure of delight in attracting and then denigrating people especially prone to the Dunning-Kruger Effect? Television as a medium reinforces this kind of image of leaders and spokespersons needing to show an unwavering confidence. TV viewers don’t have time for thoughtful, nuanced explanations regarding the latest mass shooting or volcanic event. The camera favors those who have no doubts as to why this or that happened, why the DOW dropped eight thousand points or the forest fires are so out of control this year.

Ted Koppel’s strength was probably due to his handling Nightline “against type.” Take an hour to dissect an issue, not 45 seconds.

Historical Antecedents

The Wikipedia entry on this topic points out that although the Dunning–Kruger Effect was formulated in 1999, there are many historical examples of philosophers and scientists who have made similar observations. Here are but a few:
~ Confucius: “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”
~ Bertrand Russell: “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.”
~ W. B. Yeats: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
~ Charles Darwin, whom they quoted in their original paper, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”
~ Geraint Fuller noted that Shakespeare expressed a similar observation in As You Like It: “The Foole doth thinke he is wise, but the wise man knowes himselfe to be a Foole.” (V.i)).[12]

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The Bible, too, contains plenty of advice to help us keep a proper perspective on ourselves. Here’s a verse from Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” ~Romans 12:3

For the record I’m not pointing any fingers. I’m quite familiar with the illustration that shows a hand with a finger pointing. There are three others pointing back at oneself.

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Visit Wikipedia for more on the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Meantime, life goes on… all around you. Enjoy your weekend.

Originally published at

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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