The Dunning-Kruger Effect: Who It Affects and How to Avoid It (at All Costs)
With effort and awareness, you can become much more realistic about your capabilities.
Ever wonder why some people think they’re really good at stuff when they actually aren’t? Or why they tend to discount the skills of those that are truly competent? For example, a colleague may insist that they always take the lead on giving presentations, even if they aren’t very skilled at public speaking or explaining concepts clearly. They might question the skills of another coworker who is actually much more capable than they are. In fact, despite their deficits in these skills, they may boast that they are exceptional at these tasks. This type of situation may leave you questioning how they could possibly believe this to be true.
However, it’s actually not uncommon for people to overestimate their competence in skills that they are quite incompetent in—and to discount the ability of those who are actual experts. This is a phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger effect—and whether you realize it or not, it’s all around you.
Your boss might have gone to one marketing seminar and is now sure they’re even more knowledgeable than the whole marketing team combined. Your sister might have taken a few years of Spanish in college but now considers herself to be fluent, even though she can barely string a few coherent sentences together. Your best friend may think they’re amazing at baking but actually, their cakes come up decidedly subpar.
It seems super strange but people are actually primed to think they are better at stuff than they are, particularly those who have quite a low level of skill in that particular area. And they underestimate the skills of those that are much better than they are. This is a type of cognitive bias that tricks us into inflating our perception of our own skill level. In our comprehensive guide about the Dunning-Kruger effect, learn more about what it is, who it affects, and how to avoid it.
The Dunning-Kruger effect explains the tendency of people who have low competence in something to believe they are actually experts. It’s kind of like when a little kid goes to one flute lesson, skateboarding class, or karate practice and then exuberantly declares that they are now the absolute best, greatest, most incredible flute player, skateboarder, or karate master in the world. They’re not, of course, but their little bit of knowledge, combined with excitement, leads them to believe they are.
With little kids it’s understandable—they’re also likely to think they can make the NBA, win a gold medal at the Olympics, star in the movies, become a YouTube star, develop a cure for cancer, talk to their dog, paint the next “Mona Lisa,” and become a superhero. Kids dream big, overestimate their skills, and have inflated egos by nature. But while it’s cute and developmentally appropriate in children, this phenomenon, which has been dubbed the Dunning-Kruger effect, also happens with adults.
Overview of the Dunning-Kruger Effect
This psychological or cognitive bias, which is called the Dunning-Kruger effect, describes the phenomenon of when people who are incompetent in a certain area may overestimate their abilities and mistakenly believe that they are actually experts. They are blind to their own ignorance and mistakes. This matters because, unlike with kids, when adults believe they are experts in things when they really aren’t they may screw up in big ways.
This curious bias can impact our thinking, decisions, and behaviors, blinding us to our own deficiencies, ignorance, and poor performance. Since they also don’t appreciate the competence of others, they have a dual burden of not recognizing their own incompetence while also not learning from others. Their inflated self-assessment and incompetence lead to knowledge gaps, poor performance, lacking professional development, unnecessary risks, and faulty self-insight.
Who Came up With the Dunning-Kruger Effect?
This social psychology cognitive bias was first described in an influential 1999 paper by David Dunning and Justin Kruger. The Cornell University psychologists conducted research on how people rated their own performance on tests in a variety of subjects, including grammar, logic, and sense of humor. Then, they compared the subjects’ self-assessment with their actual scores on these tests. They found that those with the lowest ability tended to inflate their skill by a larger margin than those with higher aptitude.
Their findings were then dubbed the Dunning-Kruger effect. Numerous subsequent studies have been done that replicate their results showing the human brain can be a poor performer at gauging one’s own competence. Interestingly, some research points to this phenomenon being more prominent among those living in western cultures.
Who Is Affected by the Dunning-Kruger Effect?
Before you smirk and assume this propensity for inept self-assessment is due to incompetence combined with stupidity, it’s important to note that it can actually happen to anyone. In fact, according to researchers, everyone is prone to fall into the trap of overestimating their own talents and discounting the performance of others, even in the face of ample evidence to the contrary.
Of course, not everyone is going to fall victim to over-inflating their own smarts, skills, and talents. And even if you are impacted by the Dunning-Kruger effect in one realm, it doesn’t mean that you have blind spots in others or can’t gain the insights and logical reasoning needed to accurately assess your own incompetence or knowledge gaps (or competence as the case may be). However, it’s likely that we all have an area (or two or more) where we think we are more skilled, effective, or gifted than we actually are.
Causes of the Dunning-Kruger Effect
So, what causes the Dunning-Kruger effect? Researchers don’t have an exact answer but there are many theories and findings suggest that there are many overlapping influences at play.
It’s not about intelligence
First off, it’s helpful to understand that this cognitive bias isn’t about not being smart enough to know you aren’t competent at something. And it doesn’t mean you lack intelligence overall. And yes, smart people, even very, very smart people can get caught in the Dunning-Kruger effect, too. Instead, it’s about a person’s ability to accurately judge their own abilities and look at themselves with a critical eye, which is more about self-awareness and self-reflection rather than intelligence.
So, when people are affected by the Dunning-Kruger effect, what they are really experiencing is unrealistic self-evaluation and poor self-awareness. The person perceives that they are smarter, more skilled, or more effective than they are. This can happen for a variety of reasons, such as poor self-observation, subjectivity, confirmation bias, wishful thinking, overconfidence, or inflated ego. Or they just do not have anything to compare their skill level to, in which case they don’t have a true sense of how much better or knowledgeable others may be.
For example, someone who is tone-deaf might love singing and think they have an absolutely fabulous voice. They might even think their musical talent far exceeds that of successful singers. In this case, they literally can’t hear how bad they sound. Instead, because they really enjoy singing, they may mistakenly think they sound wonderful.
Lack of feedback
Additionally, researchers point out that most people get very little constructive criticism about their competence. In other words, they usually aren’t hearing any helpful feedback from others who might have more knowledge in a certain area. Getting that feedback might guide them toward a more realistic assessment of their true abilities. However, people are often hesitant to point out other people’s failings.
Self-belief, willpower, tenacity, and confidence are qualities that can help us succeed. However, if you have an overabundance of belief in yourself, you may be extra prone to having unrealistic assessments of your abilities. The concept of “fake it till you make it” may also feed into the Dunning-Kruger effect. The faking it idea has you rely on confidence and just going for it, whatever that may be until you achieve competence. However, the difference is that people experiencing the Dunning-Kruger effect actually believe they’ve already “made it” well before they really have. In a sense, the person they are faking out is themself.
How Can You Spot the Dunning-Kruger Effect?
Once you become aware of the Dunning-Kruger effect, it becomes easier to spot its influence on other people. Essentially, if you notice that someone seems overly confident in their abilities or intellect and the evidence does not support their assertions, then they very well may be a victim of this tendency toward inflated self-assessment. Look at the evidence around you and go with your instincts. Even if a person is full of self-pride or boasting about their abilities, but the facts don’t align, then they may actually be much less competent in that area than they believe.
Also, note that when people are impacted by this cognitive bias, they actually believe that they are highly competent. And if they get any positive feedback (or don’t get a negative reaction) their confirmation bias may kick in to reinforce their overestimation of their skills. So, have some empathy for these individuals—and yourself—as the brain is pulling a trick of sorts making them overestimate their own abilities.
Are you being affected by the Dunning-Kruger effect?
However, while it’s well and good to know that others are susceptible to this phenomenon, how can you tell if you’re under its spell? Well, it’s not easy! Your brain is working hard to fool you into thinking your minimal knowledge or ability is actually much more advanced than it really is. But you can do some research and soul-searching to get a better gauge of your actual abilities or performance. The key is to look at yourself objectively—a task that isn’t easy but can be done.
Listen to your gut
While you certainly don’t want to second guess all of your perceived skills and talents, do listen to your inner voice. If there is a part of your brain that whispers, “I might not be as good at this as I think,” then hear that message. Evaluate further. You don’t want to fall victim to “imposter syndrome” (when people, particularly women, believe that they are less capable than they actually are) so tread carefully. But if you are questioning your competence in an area, it can be worth doing a deep dive to consider if you actually need to work on your abilities to reach the expertise you’d like to have.
Compare and contrast
If you aren’t sure of your abilities, look for ways to objectively compare yourself to the skills of others. Seek out examples of experts in that field and see how your performance or skill stacks up. Aim to be as objective as possible. If you know people who are experts in this task, talent, or ability, you can also ask them what they believe are the key metrics to look for when comparing your own level of competence.
Ask for feedback
Another key way to determine if you are incompetent or an expert (or somewhere in between) is to ask knowledgeable parties to let you know. Ask for constructive criticism—and listen to what they say. Aim to set your ego aside and take in whatever feedback you receive with an open mind.
How to Overcome and Avoid the Dunning-Kruger Effect
Cognitive biases of any kind are hard to avoid. However, being aware of them and seeking to avoid and overcome their power is a key way to reach those aims. Just knowing that our minds often seek to make us feel more competent than we truly are, especially when we are actually quite subpar, can help diffuse the power of this psychological illusion.
Regularly checking in on your skill levels and how you really compare to others in those specific areas helps, too. Request (and listen to) the feedback of others. Use your logical reasoning skills to help you determine what you may or may not need to work on. You can also aim to tune into their nonverbal cues to assess what people really think of your competence level. Also, regardless of your own true abilities, you can always work on improving. So, keep focusing on bolstering your knowledge and skills and cultivating your talents.
Also, be humble and open to the idea that you may not always be the best judge of your own capabilities. And note that part of the Dunning-Kruger effect is underestimating the skills of others. So, aim to be a more objective and appreciative judge of the talents of others as well. Seek out those that appear to be experts by looking for concrete measures, such as spending years developing their skills, writing a book on the topic, being widely held in high regard, or receiving awards or other honors, to measure yourself against and also to learn from.
We are all prone to falling into the Dunning-Kruger effect. Once you become more aware of this cognitive bias, you can begin to spot it when it’s happening to others—and yourself. Looking at your own smarts, skills, and talents with a more objective, critical lens can also help you become a more accurate judge of your own abilities. Use your enhanced self-discovery and self-appraisal skills to gain the knowledge you need to sidestep the pull of the Dunning-Kruger effect. With effort and awareness, you can become much more realistic about your capabilities—and primed to improve your competence wherever needed.