When someone overestimates their skillset or knowledge in a specific subject, this is a cognitive bias known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. People who fall victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect often lack the self-awareness to be able to see their own errors or be able to fix them.
For example, an amateur chess player with little experience might assume that they’ll beat out the more experienced competition in their chess tournament.
Or, a college student might claim that they’re going to do well on an upcoming math test and don’t need to study even though they’ve been earning D’s and F’s all semester.
These are both examples of how the Dunning-Kruger effect can play out, but here’s a deeper look at the history behind the Dunning-Kruger effect, what causes it, and how you can avoid falling prey to it.
The Origins of the Dunning-Kruger Effect
The origins of the Dunning-Kruger effect come from two psychologists from Cornell University, David Dunning and Justin Kruger. In their 1999 research paper, Dunning and Kruger conducted four different studies where they tested participants on logic, sense of humor, and even grammatical skills.
What they found is that people in the bottom percentiles in these areas often rated themselves far higher than they actually were – and they lacked the self-awareness to see their mistakes or errors. In one of their experiments, Dunning and Kruger asked sixty-five different participants to rate how objectively funny they found certain jokes to be.
Not only were some of the participants poor at rating how humorous these jokes were, but these same participants claimed to have excellent senses of humor. Dunning and Kruger found that people who were incompetent didn’t just perform poorly – they were also often unable to accurately judge the quality of their work.
From their research, the psychologists dubbed the phenomenon as the Dunning-Kruger effect, and it’s been a popular theory in the psychology field ever since.
What Causes the Dunning-Kruger Effect?
Unfortunately, the Dunning-Kruger effect is all too widespread – there’s a good chance you’ve encountered it among friends, co-workers, family, or even yourself at some point. However, the cause of the Dunning-Kruger effect isn’t quite so obvious – Dunning and Kruger believe that it stems from a “dual burden.”
The same incompetence that makes someone perform poorly at a task is the same incompetence that makes it difficult for them to see their errors. Dunning’s theory is that the knowledge someone needs to be good at a task is the same knowledge that someone needs for self-awareness – which is why so many people are unable to tell how poorly they’re performing.
Here are some other contributing factors that lead to the Dunning-Kruger effect:
- Too much overconfidence: With many people experiencing the Dunning-Kruger effect, they may know a little bit about the subject they’re performing poorly in, which leads to overconfidence. Even though they’re ignorant, the knowledge they do have is enough to make them believe they’re an expert. Think of a medical student who’s completed their first semester, and now believes they’re able to diagnose everyone.
- Lack of metacognition: Lack of metacognition can play a big role in who experiences the Dunning-Kruger effect. Metacognition is the ability to analyze your own behavior through a more objective perspective. Victims of the Dunning-Kruger effect lack this skill set – they’re usually lacking the self-awareness to form a realistic perspective about their own abilities.
Whether a little bit of knowledge breeds a lot of confidence or they’re just lacking in self-awareness, the Dunning-Kruger effect can be far too common.
What is the Opposite of the Dunning-Kruger Effect?
While the Dunning-Kruger effect occurs when people overestimate their abilities, the phenomenon’s opposite would be imposter syndrome. People suffering from imposter syndrome tend to underestimate their abilities or feel that they don’t deserve their success. People with imposter syndrome feel like just that – imposters.
People dealing with the Dunning-Kruger effect may have too much confidence, but anyone with imposter syndrome may be plagued with self-doubt or feel like a fraud.
Who Does the Dunning-Kruger Effect Impact?
Unfortunately, the Dunning-Kruger effect can impact anyone, although some people may experience it more often than others. Regardless of how skilled or knowledgeable you are, everyone has subjects that they’re ignorant about. You might be a math whiz, but you could end up experiencing the Dunning-Kruger effect with your artistic abilities.
In fact, highly-intelligent people may be susceptible to the Dunning-Kruger effect because they believe their intelligence in one area is transferable to another. Just because someone makes a brilliant scientist doesn’t mean they’re going to be an amazing writer.
Nobody is immune to the phenomenon, and if you examine the actions of yourself and the people around you, you may find that you’ve experienced the Dunning-Kruger effect with quite a bit of regularity. Maybe you picked up a new hobby and after a couple of tutorial videos, you think you’re an expert.
Interestingly enough, Dunning and Kruger found that people who are genuine experts in a specific field tend to underestimate their abilities. A famous author who’s been published may think their writing has room for improvement, but someone else with no writing background might believe they’re the next Hemingway.
How Do You Know if You Have the Dunning-Kruger Effect?
Since the Dunning-Kruger effect is all about self-awareness, it’s no surprise that people tend to have a hard time recognizing when they’re dealing with the phenomenon.
One thing that may indicate that you’re dealing with the Dunning-Kruger effect is if you’re experiencing the same criticisms from different people in your life. For instance, maybe you think that you can’t get any better at art, but you continuously get C’s in the subject and all your art teachers have the same criticisms. You could be dealing with the Dunning-Kruger effect in that area.
Take a look at the parts of your life or the subjects that you’re 100% confident in – do you have the background or the practice to back up your expertise, and do other people view you as an expert too? For instance, if you’ve taken one psychology class and think you’re ready to be a therapist, you may be suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect.
However, if you’ve finished all your schooling and you’re a licensed therapist, it’s reasonable to assume you’re an expert since you’ve got the background to back it up.
How to Fix the Dunning-Kruger Effect and Avoid it in the Future
Everyone may be a little susceptible to the Dunning-Kruger effect, but there are steps you can take to help stop it from happening in the future:
- Don’t stop learning or practicing: In their studies, Dunning and Kruger found that as practice and knowledge of the subject increased, the participant’s confidence decreased to a reasonable level. The more knowledge you gain from a subject, the more you’re likely to realize that you’ve still got a lot left to learn. Even on subjects where you may have the background to consider yourself an expert, it’s always important to never stop learning or honing your skill set.
- Don’t stop asking yourself questions: Part of true growth and learning is challenging your beliefs. While it may seem comfortable to only look at sources or information that confirms what you already know during the learning process (also known as confirmation bias), it can also stunt your growth.
- Get feedback from other people: People suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect often have a hard time taking or believing criticism from other people. Constructive criticism may not feel great to hear, but it’s also a great way to help recognize your weaknesses in a subject too. It can also give you a good idea of how others accurately perceive your abilities.
You may still deal with the Dunning-Kruger effect from time to time, but by practicing, asking questions that challenge what you already know, and getting feedback about your abilities from other people, you’re more likely to avoid it.
While the Dunning-Kruger effect has only been around as a psychological phenomena for about two decades, it does hold a lot of weight – and it’s something that you’re likely to encounter in the people around you (or yourself). Whether it’s a college student that believes they deserved a better score or someone thinking they’re an expert on a new hobby they just picked up, nobody is completely immune to the Dunning-Kruger effect.
Continuously practicing and getting feedback from others can help you recognize your own weaknesses and what you need to grow or improve on.