If you think you are smarter than everyone around you, you’re definitely not. If you have a colleague who thinks he is much better at his job than everyone, he is definitely not. Well, if you feel this way about yourself, or come across anyone who overestimates their own abilities the same way you do, no one is to blame.

Studies have shown that we, humans, are not very good at evaluating ourselves accurately. In fact, we tend to judge ourselves as better than others. Psychologists call this phenomenon – the Dunning-Kruger effect.

This TED-Ed video, “Why Incompetent People Think They’re Amazing” based on lessons by David Dunning, explains why this happens and what makes most unskilled or uneducated people often overestimate their abilities.

“Knowing how competent we are and how our skills stack up against other people’s is more than a self-esteem boost,” explains the video. “It helps us figure out when we can forge ahead on our own decisions and instincts and when we need, instead, to seek out advice.”

In a study, when software engineers from two different companies were asked to rate their performance, 32 percent of the engineers at one company and 42 percent at the other put themselves in the top 5 percent. This is totally unacceptable as it contravenes the laws of maths. In another study, 88 percent of American drivers expressed themselves as having above average driving skills. So the studies clearly show us that “people tend to rate themselves better than most in disciplines ranging from health, leadership skills, ethics, and beyond.”

And what’s more interesting is that individuals with the least ability “are often the most likely to overrate their skills to the greatest extent.” Why? Because their incompetence is the very thing that stops them from realizing how incompetent they are.

You might have heard about the Dunning-Kruger Effect being used in the social media to insult one another’s intelligence and/or arrogance like: “You’re such a Dunning-Kruger” , “Did Dunning-Kruger guy say that?” , “Ever heard of Dunning-Kruger?” etc. Sadly, we all are the victims of the Dunning-Kruger effect. And, that’s due to inherent fact that we are all misinformed about our skill levels in some way shape or form, and we all have pockets of incompetence we fail to recognize. But why?

When psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger first described the effect in 1999, they argued that people with inadequate knowledge and skill in particular areas suffer a double curse. First, they make mistakes and reach poor decisions. But second, those same knowledge gaps also prevent them from catching their errors. In other words, poor performers fail to recognize their intellectual shortcoming because they simply lack “the very expertise needed to recognize how badly they’re doing”

“The Dunning-Kruger effect isn’t a question of ego blinding us to our weaknesses,” the video explains. Because People usually admit their deficits once they can identify them. But for an individual to come to that realization, some level of expertise is needed. And, this explains why people with a moderate amount of experience or expertise often doubt their abilities. They know enough to know that there’s a lot they don’t know.

Moreover, experts tend to overestimate others. They think everyone is knowledgeable too. So, whether an individual is inept or highly skilled, he/she is likely to get caught in a bubble of inaccurate self-perception. When they’re unskilled, they’re too dumb to see their own faults. And, when they’re exceptionally competent, they fail to perceive how unusual their abilities are.”

So if the Dunning-Kruger effect is invisible to those experiencing it, here’s what you can do to find out how good you actually are at various thing: “First, ask for feedback from other people,and consider it, even if it’s hard to hear. Second, keep learning. Because “the more knowledgeable we become, the less likely we are to have invisible holes in our competence,” explains the video.

As the saying goes: “When arguing with a fool, first make sure the other person isn’t doing the same thing.”

Further Readings And References:

  1. Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties In Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments [PDF] (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology )
  2. We Are All Confident Idiots  (Pacific Standard)
  3. The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is (The New York Times)
  4. Why We Are Unaware Of How Unaware We Are (YANSS)

9 thoughts on “The Dunning-Kruger Effect: Why Incompetent People Think They’re Amazing

  1. I love this! I’ve seen it apply so much to people who have strong opinions about subjects about which they know nothing. They take other’s opinions as true without investigating personally, which is why fake news works so well. Now this kind of ignorance has a name. Awesome!

  2. i am almost certainly guilty of this. Perhaps “guilty” isn’t an accurate word. i do know when i can do something competent as i gauge a reaction; like i know i cook a damn good omelet, i make a living from it & people constantly tell me, but i know i am no chef, i just make good omelets.

  3. It’s like when I try to buy new glasses, but can’t see what they look like until the lenses are put in – you just can’t see what’s right in front of you! Interesting post.

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