Dunning-Kruger Effect: Why Incompetent People Are So Self-Confident

Where the misperception of one's abilities comes from.

In 2006, Australian scientists conducted a study – they asked interns to evaluate their competence. Over 75% believed they knew medical procedures very well and could even teach others. Though, in reality, it turned out that less than 20% of them were really that good.

This case perfectly illustrates the Dunning-Kruger effect – a cognitive distortion when people believe they are more intelligent than they are.

What the Dunning-Kruger Effect Is

In 1999, David Dunning and Justin Kruger, Cornell University psychologists, were the first to describe this effect. 

They asked college students to self-evaluate their logical thinking skills and suggest how much their abilities are higher than their peers. In addition, the researchers tested participants in grammar, humor, and logic and compared students' opinions regarding their success with actual performance.

The results were shocking: participants from the bottom 25% of the tests' results were sure they would be at the top of the rankings. On the other hand, participants from the top 25% thought their grades would be lower than they were.

These results reveal the specularity of the Dunning-Kruger effect: the least competent people often have illusions about their abilities, and the more knowledgeable ones tend to underestimate themselves.

The Issue of Metacognition

The researchers say that the problem with metacognition, or the ability to analyze one's thoughts and actions, is one reason for the effect. People often evaluate themselves only from their limited and subjective point of view. And, of course, they seem more knowledgeable to themselves in that light. 

The practice of metacognition involves abandoning the selfish point of view and exploring the self. Instead of carelessly believing that we are wise by default, we shall leave our comfort zone more often and evaluate ourselves objectively.

"Double Burden" of Incompetence

People affected by the Dunning-Kruger effect are unable to analyze their thoughts. Therefore, they bear a "double burden": ignorance and unawareness of their ignorance.

David Dunning suggests that those who have limited knowledge in any field not only draw erroneous conclusions but also fail to realize this due to their incompetence. 

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Little Knowledge Leads to Self-Confidence

Sometimes even a tiny amount of experience in a particular field makes people mistakenly believe they already know everything there is to know and even claim expertise.

A study published in 2014 by Tony Yates and Edmund Marek confirms this. The authors monitored the effect of biology lessons on understanding the evolution theory by the example of 536 high school students in Oklahoma. 

Students were questioned in detail before taking the biology course and then again immediately after. No wonder, after the course, the number of correct answers to questions about evolution increased. Though, the confidence of students that this knowledge was enough increased as well.

This study confirms that education not only allows us to distinguish between what we know/don't know. It also dulls our ability to evaluate our competence.

One reason is that people rarely receive negative comments about their skills in everyday life. Call it tact, diplomacy, or respect for others, but the end result is the same: we usually avoid telling people they messed up.

Who Is Affected by the Dunning-Kruger Effect

It affects everybody. 

It is so because no matter how well-informed or experienced we are, everyone has some knowledge fields they are less good at than others. Moreover, the Dunning-Kruger effect is not considered a sign of low intelligence. Smart people also face this phenomenon.

A study by the University of Nebraska showed that 68% of teachers rated themselves in the top 25% for teaching ability. More than 90% of them rated themselves as above average (which, of course, is mathematically impossible). 

A similar study in IT companies showed that 32 to 42% of programmers refer themselves to the top 5% of employees of their organizations. 

This proves that the problem of non-recognition of ignorance affects everyone. No one can claim to be an expert in all fields. The ability to admit that you can easily be part of such statistics is an essential step to recognizing this effect. 

The Dunning-Kruger Effect Is Everywhere

More recent studies have shown a significant effect on other fields, from medicine and politics to ignorant sommeliers and the anti-vaccination movement.

According to a study published in 2018, Americans who have relatively little understanding of politics often overestimate their knowledge of this topic. It is so especially if they consider themselves to be supporters of a particular party. 

Dunning and Krueger's study showed a similar result: more than 80% of gun owners were insufficiently aware of safety precautions but overestimated their knowledge.

Ways to Avoid the Dunning-Kruger Effect

It is worth questioning your knowledge and conclusions honestly and regularly instead of blindly accepting them to avoid being affected by this phenomenon.

Luckily, feedback might surprisingly be a simple antidote to the Dunning-Kruger effect. One of the best ways to find out whether you are good at something would be to request an evaluation from people whose competence is beyond doubt. 

Though, the key to this strategy is to hear what they have to say and overcome our natural disposition to protect ourselves.