Dunning-Kruger effect.

Introduction: What is the Dunning-Kruger Effect?

Ever met a relative who begins spouting off on a topic at length with very little or absolutely no knowledge? And such people generally believe that they are the most informed person in the room? I guess we all have had an encounter with such people. Interestingly the field of psychology has an effect which explains this behaviour, it is known as the ‘Dunning-Kruger’ effect.

The effect is named after researchers David Dunning and Justin Kruger, the two social psychologists from Cornell University who first described it.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a type of cognitive bias in which people believe that they are smarter and more capable than they really are. The combination of poor self-awareness and low cognitive abilities leads them to overestimate their own capabilities.


Dunning and Kruger tested participants on their logic, grammar and sense of humour. In one of their experiments, they asked 65 participants to rate how funny different jokes were. Some of the participants were exceptionally poor at determining what other people would find funny, yet these same subjects described themselves as excellent judges of humour.

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They found out that those who performed in the bottom quartile rated their skills far above average. For example, those who scored in maybe 12th percentile rated their expertise to be in at least 62nd percentile.


The researchers attributed the trend to a problem of metacognition which is 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 also robs them of the ability to realize it,” they wrote.

According to them, incompetent people tend to overestimate their own skills, fail to recognize the expertise of other people and do not acknowledge their own mistakes.

Here are a few reasons why this might happen.

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1. An inability to recognize a lack of skill and mistakes

Dunning suggests that deficits in skills and expertise create a two-pronged problem. First, these deficits cause people to perform poorly in the domain in which they are incompetent. Secondly, their deficient knowledge makes them unable to identify their mistakes.

2. A lack of Metacognition

People often evaluate themselves from their own limited and highly subjective point of view. They are unable to step back and look at their own behaviour. That is why they struggle to have a realistic view of their abilities.

3. A little knowledge can lead to overconfidence

Another contributing factor is that sometimes a tiny bit of knowledge on a subject can lead people to believe that they know all that there is to know about a particular subject. A person might have the slimmest bit of awareness about a subject, yet thanks to the Dunning-Kruger effect, might believe that he is an expert on the topic.


So, who is affected by this effect? Who are these people that are so incompetent that they are unable to see the obvious?

Unfortunately, we all are. No matter how informed or experienced we are its not possible to know everything about everything. The reality is that we all are susceptible to this phenomenon. In fact, most of us probably experience it with surprising regularity without even realizing it. People who are genuine experts in one subject may mistakenly believe that their intelligence carries over into other areas as well. A brilliant scientist, for example, might be a poor writer. For the scientist to recognize his own lack of skill, he needs to possess a good working knowledge of things such as grammar, composition etc. Since those are lacking, the scientist may fail to recognize his own poor performance. Therefore, the Dunning-Kruger effect does not attribute to low IQ since its more about how an individual perceives his abilities.

So, the question arises that if the incompetent tend to think they are experts, what do genuine experts think of their own abilities?

To answer that question, Dunning and Kruger found that those at the high end of competence spectrum did hold more realistic views of their own knowledge and capabilities. However, these experts underestimate their own abilities relative to how others did. These individuals do know that they are better than average, but they are not convinced of their own superior performance is compared to others. The problem, in this case, is that they tend to believe that everyone else is knowledgeable as well.


Is there anything that can minimize this phenomenon? Is there a point at which the incompetent actually recognizes their own ineptitude? “We are all engines of misbelief,” Dunning has suggested. While we are all prone to experiencing the Dunning-Kruger effect, learning more about how the mind works and the mistakes we are all susceptible to might be one step toward correcting such patterns. Dunning and Kruger suggest that as experience with a subject increase, confidence typically declines to more realistic levels. As people learn more about the topic of interest, they begin to recognize their own lack of knowledge and ability. Then as people gain more information and actually become experts on a topic, their confidence levels begin to improve once again.

So, what can you do to gain a more realistic assessment of your own abilities in a particular area if you are not sure you can trust your own self-assessment?

Love to Learn
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Keep learning and practising

Instead of assuming you know all, there is to know about a subject, keep digging deeper. Once you gain greater knowledge of a topic, the more likely you are to recognize how much there is still to learn. This can combat the tendency to assume you’re an expert, even if you’re not.

Ask other people how you’re doing

Another effective strategy involves asking others for constructive criticism. While it can sometimes be difficult to hear, such feedback can provide valuable insights into how others perceive your abilities.

Question what you know

Even as you learn more and get feedback, it can be easy to only pay attention to things that confirm what you think you already know. This is an example of another type of psychological bias known as the confirmation bias. In order to minimize this tendency, keep challenging your beliefs and expectations. Seek out information that challenges your ideas.


The irony of the Dunning-Kruger Effect is, Professor Dunning notes, “the knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task—and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at that task.”