Understanding the Dunning-Kruger Effect
Wed, April 21, 2021

Understanding the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Jenkins’ misperception is what we call the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias where people who are ignorant, unskilled, or untalented believe they are much more competent than they actually are / Photo by: Igor Nikushin via Shutterstock

 

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: It is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.” – Charles Darwin

In 2016, a movie titled “Florence Foster Jenkins” narrated the story of New York heiress Florence Foster Jenkins. At a young age, she believed that she was a gifted vocalist. She was allowed to perform at the White House for US President Rutherford Hayes. This continued while she was growing up. At the age of 44, Jenkins started giving private recitals after focusing on operatic singing. While it was widely known that her singing was supremely bad, no one’s sure if she was aware of it.

Nonetheless, Jenkins continued with her career, dismissing her critics and calling them “hoodlums.” She even insinuated that they were hired by jealous rivals. At age 76, she was able to book Carnegie Hall for her first and only public performance. Unfortunately, the reviews for her show were merciless. Two days later, she suffered a heart attack while shopping for sheet music.

Jenkins’ misperception is what we call the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias where people who are ignorant, unskilled, or untalented believe they are much more competent than they actually are -- one of the most common examples that people are using to describe US President Donald Trump. Despite his weak interest in and understanding of policy matters, his confidence and bluster never waver. 

History of the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Many of us have likely experienced this in real life, most of the time being extremely annoying. We might have asked ourselves how these people with limited knowledge or skills can greatly overestimate their competence. This concept was studied by Cornell University psychologists David Dunning and Justine Kruger in their 1999 research titled “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.”

The researchers conducted several experiments where they administered tests of humor, grammar, and logic. They discovered that participants who scored in the bottom quartile grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. For instance, those who were in the 12th percentile self-rated their expertise to be in the 62nd percentile. According to VeryWell Mind, a trusted and compassionate online resource that provides the guidance on mental health and balance, incompetent people are also unable to assess and recognize the quality of their own work. 

“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 robs them of the ability to realize it,” the researchers wrote. 

The Dunning-Kruger effect has been found in several domains, including financial knowledge, emotional intelligence, and firearm safety. Most of the time, an individual who has this kind of cognitive bias would stick to their opinion even if people prove they are wrong. According to Psychology Today, an online site that features the latest from the world of psychology, that person would tell you that your opinion is "fake.”

Incompetent people tend to not recognize their own mistakes and lack of skill, overestimate their own skill levels, and not recognize the genuine skill and expertise of other people. Other studies of the Dunning-Kruger effect show its influence in other areas such as business, medicine, and politics. A 2018 study showed that Americans who know relatively little about politics and government are more likely than other Americans to overestimate their knowledge on those topics.

Many of us have likely experienced this in real life, most of the time being extremely annoying. We might have asked ourselves how these people with limited knowledge or skills can greatly overestimate their competence / Photo by: Anton Zabielskyi via Shutterstock

 

Who is Mostly Affected

The Dunning-Kruger effect can be found anywhere. Forbes, a global media company focusing on business, investing, technology, entrepreneurship, leadership, and lifestyle, reported that a study of high-tech firms showed that 32% to 42% of software engineers rated their skills as being in the top 5% of their companies. A nationwide survey discovered that 21% of Americans believe that it’s ‘very likely’ or ‘fairly likely’ that they will turn into millionaires within the next decade. 

Another study of medical technicians showed that 68% rated themselves in the top 25% for teaching ability, while 90% rated themselves above average. Unfortunately, all of us can be affected by or susceptible to the Dunning-Kruger effect. In fact, most of us probably experience it with surprising regularity. For instance, experts in one field often mistakenly believe that their intelligence and knowledge carry over into other areas they are less familiar with.

Overcoming the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Most of the time, arguing with people experiencing the Dunning-Kruger effect rarely is effective. They hardly notice this, too. Thus, we all need some self-evaluation because we might not know that we already have this cognitive bias. To overcome the Dunning-Kruger effect, one must keep learning and practicing instead of assuming that we all know everything. This will help in realizing that we still have so much to learn.

Also, it’s important to ask people for constructive criticism to help us improve. It’s hard to hear this sometimes but this can provide valuable insights into how others perceive your abilities. People should also keep challenging their beliefs and expectations instead of paying attention to things that they already know.

To overcome the Dunning-Kruger effect, one must keep learning and practicing instead of assuming that we all know everything. This will help in realizing that we still have so much to learn / Photo by: HBRH via Shutterstock