Everything You Need To Know About The Dunning-Kruger Effect

Helen Lee Bouygues

We’ve all been there. You’re in a work meeting and someone is taking over the conversation without really knowing what they’re talking about. Or, a family dinner becomes combative when the reigning “foreign policy expert” is mispronouncing the names of other countries. There’s a very common cognitive bias at play in these situations: the Dunning-Kruger effect. 

The Dunning-Kruger effect occurs when people believe that they are smarter, more capable, and higher-performing than they really are. In these situations, people overestimate their knowledge and intellectual prowess relative to their peers, or the general population. The phenomenon is named after researchers David Dunning and Justin Kruger, two social psychologists who investigated the effect in several studies. 

For example, in one experiment, Dunning and Kruger administered tests on logic, humor, and grammar to groups of participants, and then asked them to estimate their own performance. Those who performed the lowest, in the 12th percentile, estimated that they achieved in the 62nd percentile. In another experiment, the psychologists asked respondents if they were familiar with various common science subjects. They also included terms that were completely fabricated. In one of the experiments, about 90 percent of the participants indicated that they had some knowledge of the fictional terms.

“To a great degree, we fail to recognize the frequency and scope of our ignorance.”

As Dunning himself writes, “To a great degree, we fail to recognize the frequency and scope of our ignorance.” In business and in the workplace, widespread experience with the Dunning-Kruger effect can be considered the logical result of a corporate culture that rewards overconfidence. Researchers find that overconfidence in the workplace is highly contagious. If an employee is rewarded socially or professionally for their risk-taking and hyper competitive behavior, others in the workplace begin to model and replicate that behavior in hopes of their own advancement. It is easy to see how this common workplace culture would result in fewer opportunities for curiosity or admission of any lack of knowledge and instead manifest in meetings and other group activities as the Dunning-Kruger effect. 

Dunning wrote that the Dunning-Kruger effect could help explain the rise of Donald Trump and the ardent support he enjoys from his followers. Dunning points out that Trump’s base of support, and that of the Republican Party as a whole, is strongest among those with the least education–only 39 percent of college graduates identify as Republicans vs. 59 percent who identify as Democrats. But it’s not just that Trump supporters might be less educated, it’s that they don’t know that they don’t know.

“In voters, lack of expertise would be lamentable but perhaps not so worrisome if people had some sense of how imperfect their civic knowledge is,” Dunning wrote during Trump’s 2016 campaign for president. “If they did, they could repair it. But the Dunning-Kruger Effect suggests something different. It suggests that some voters, especially those facing significant distress in their life, do not know enough to hold [Trump] accountable.”

Why are we so often unaware of our own inabilities? Dunning and Kruger point to a “dual burden” that exacerbates the Dunning-Kruger effect. Essentially, their research finds that incompetence begets more incompetence. People who experience the Dunning-Kruger effect, by nature of their own incompetence, lack the mental ability required to recognize their incompetence. Instead, they will overestimate their own skill and knowledge, and fail to recognize their own mistakes. The Dunning-Kruger effect also changes how incompetent people view their peers, because they often underestimate and undervalue the skills and knowledge of others. 

To a certain extent, we are all guilty of posturing because of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Maybe we don’t want to seem like we don’t know something in front of a client or on a first date. Perhaps we stretch the truth about our own expertise in order to land a job. There’s a reason, afterall, the phrase “fake it until you make it,” is popular with strivers even though it’s terrible advice.

“People who experience the Dunning-Kruger effect, by nature of their own incompetence, lack the mental ability required to recognize their incompetence.”

The Dunning-Kruger effect doesn’t have to rule our thinking. There are ways to overcome this impulse. For example, Dunning and Kruger’s research suggests that as we get more familiar with a topic or area of study, our false confidence decreases to appropriate levels. 

We can also employ critical thinking skills to negate the Dunning-Kruger effect. Our brains have developed to keep us safe, including using memory, information (correct or not), and experiences to inform our thoughts and opinions. At the Reboot Foundation, we believe in intentionally exploring critical thinking skills to fight against a range of cognitive biases that we all have. Here’s how critical thinking can help with Dunning-Kruger effect: 

Acknowledge you don’t know it all: It sounds simple, but especially when speaking or writing about topics you are very passionate about, it’s helpful to remind yourself that while you may feel strongly about it, you might not have enough knowledge to communicate about it with authority. Acceptance is the first step. 

Get curious: When presented with a new idea or topic, it’s helpful to do some preliminary research to learn about the topic fundamentally, before deciding to speak or debate about it. Knowing the definition of the topic area and relevant basic facts can help you talk clearly about this topic and also help you identify the areas where you don’t know enough information to speak on it with clarity. 

Seek out new perspectives: Sometimes the best way to find our blind spots in our thinking is by asking other people what they think about a topic. Learning about other people’s experiences and perspectives gives us the chance to consider our own position, refine our thinking, and reflect on our decision-making processes. 

It’s important to remember that cognitive biases are natural and are often helpful tools that help us quickly navigate our days and make smart decisions. However, when cognitive biases are not balanced with critical thinking, they can lead us down the road of faulty decision-making. 

Helen Lee Bouygues is the president of the Reboot Foundation

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