Understanding the Dunning–Kruger Effect

Understanding the Dunning–Kruger Effect

Based on their 1999 study, David Dunning and Justin Kruger came up with this theory of cognitive bias. Essentially what the Dunning-Kruger Effect suggests is that even if someone tends to be ineffective or incompetent when it comes to a certain task or trait, they still rate themselves particularly high regarding said task—they are too ignorant to recognize the reality of the situation.

It was Charles Darwin who once said that "Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge," and this is at the crux of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Dunning and Kruger discovered this bias when testing a group of students. The experiment involved the areas of humor, logic, and grammar. They cross-referenced the students' actual results with the estimations the students gave in terms of how they think they did. Those with the lowest scores projected that they were actually among the top scorers in each category. Those, on the other hand, who did demonstrate greater competence, tended to have a better handle on their weaknesses and knowledge gaps.

So why does such a bias exist? According to Dunning and Kruger, one such reason is ego. People don't like to think that they fall below the average—on anything. And secondly, if someone is incompetent in a given area, to begin with, this makes it that much more difficult for the person to also recognize that they are lacking in those particular skills. As Dunning and Kruger put it: "People who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions…but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it."

The problem with this effect comes in when people who fail to recognize that they are underperforming, then they fail to ask what it is they can do better—in their eyes, they do not need to do better. Being able to see our shortcomings helps us work on correcting those flaws. For those who do suffer from the Dunning-Kruger Effect, they are consequently satisfied that the job they're doing is top-level, as they are unable to see the reality of their subpar performance, and therefore they will continue moving forward on this subpar path.

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