Have you overestimated your abilities?

Even if you’ve never heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect, you’ve definitely seen it in action: the inexperienced politician with strong opinions about global affairs, the celebrity on an anti-science crusade, the self-proclaimed stock-market expert that loses money left and right. The Dunning-Kruger effect is the strange phenomenon that makes unskilled or uneducated people overestimate their abilities.

Psychologist David Dunning has long studied people’s awareness of their own thinking processes—an area of science known as metacognition. In 1999, he and his then-graduate student Justin Kruger published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology entitled “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties In Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” In it, the researchers performed a series of experiments that asked college students to rate how funny jokes were (which they compared with ratings from professional comedians), identify grammar errors, and answer questions dealing with logical reasoning.

Across the board, those who did the worst on the tests thought they did the best. Interestingly, those who did the best tended to underestimate their ability. In the paper, the researchers laid out the sad truth: incompetent people can’t know they’re incompetent because their incompetence is the very thing that robs them of the ability to realize how incompetent they are.

But this goes further than people just not knowing about their own incompetence. “What’s curious,” Dunning wrote in Pacific Standard, “Is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.”

It’s so easy to judge other people, isn’t it? In truth, though, the Dunning-Kruger effect leaves no brain unscathed: you do it, and you don’t know you do it. As knowledgeable as you think you are in many areas, there are always areas you don’t know about, but think you do. If that leaves you feeling uneasy, Dunning has some words of comfort: “Over the years, I’ve become convinced of one key, overarching fact about the ignorant mind. One should not think of it as uninformed. Rather, one should think of it as misinformed.” That is, an ignorant mind isn’t empty; rather, it’s full of the wrong information. Still, it’s the only information you have, so you rely on it as if it’s, well, reliable.

To overcome this, Dunning recommends being your own devil’s advocate. Ask yourself how you might be mistaken, or how your expectations might turn out to be wrong. Don’t assume you know—be a critic of the information you’ve got.

To learn more about your hidden shortcomings, check out “You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself” by David McRaney. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Check out my related post: Can you get rid of the bias in your head?

Interesting reads:








  1. Great post. I’ve always found that concept fascinating. This is somewhat related:

    A survey of 2,800 Americans found that nearly two-thirds of respondents believe they are smarter than average. Seventy-one percent of men and individuals under age 44 thought they were more intelligent than the average person. https://www.realclearscience.com/quick_and_clear_science/2018/07/05/65_of_americans_think_they_are_more_intelligent_than_average.html

    Liked by 1 person

    • My pappy used to tell me to be humble and to always continue to learn. At times, I even over-estimate my abilities and one instance led me to fall off my bike! So stay vigilant and hungry to learn. At least I do.

      Liked by 1 person

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