Like all biases, knowing about the Dunning-Kruger effect can help us know ourselves and our limitations better
If you are into Twitter and other social media, you have probably heard about the Dunning-Kruger effect. It is one of the most talked-about mental biases nowadays. It affects us all and has some profound implications on diverse areas such as leadership, learning, and even how we argue with strangers on social media.
As Wikipedia explains, “the Dunning-Kruger effect is the cognitive bias whereby people with low ability at a task overestimate their ability”. Some researchers also apply it to people with high ability, who tend to underestimate their capabilities.
This makes sense. When you don’t know much about a topic, you don’t know everything there is to know. It is easy to fall into thinking that you already know a lot or enough. You don’t know enough about the topic to assess everything you don’t know correctly. The opposite also happens: people who are experts on a topic realise how much it took them to get there and also know enough about the specific field to see that they are still far away from knowing everything. Hence, they underestimate their knowledge or expertise.
Thus, the Dunning-Kruger effect would be the opposite of the most famous phrase from Socrates: “I know only one thing, and that is that I know nothing”. Under Dunning-Kruger, we could reformulate this into “I know nothing, ergo I know everything”.
As the name indicates, this effect is based on research conducted by two American social psychologists, David Dunning and Justin Kruger. They published their now-famous paper in 1999, and since then, the results have been replicated many times. The original research focused on logical reasoning, grammar, and social skills. The study subjects would rate themselves in these topics. Then their true ability would be assessed. Dunning and Kruger realized that people who weren’t experts or skilled in the topic would rate themselves higher than their actual performance merited.
The results of this and other research usually come in the form of the graph we can see below.
I love the names of the phases, especially the first one; it is very graphic. When you are climbing Mount Stupid, you think you know a lot, but you don’t know anything.
It happens to the best of us
Like all biases, we think it happens to other people, but not us. We are too smart for this silly thing to happen to us. This is probably another type of bias, although I’m not sure of the name.
The Dunning-Kruger effect affects us all, not only the most stupid people in society (strangely enough, we always think others are the stupid ones, not us, we can’t possibly be the dumb ones). It is not a phenomenon only affecting a few. It affects us all.
I know I am a victim of the Dunning-Kruger effect. I know it now, but I wasn’t aware of it until recently. Still, I’m sure I will continue thinking I am better at things for which I am ill-prepared to perform. I like to think of myself as a multidisciplinary erudite. If you read some of my posts, you will have noticed that I like to learn (and have an opinion) about many different topics: leadership, technology, history, philosophy, coaching, geopolitics, or even death and the meaning of life. I am a generalist, not a specialist, which means I know a little about many things, but I don’t know a lot about a single topic. This is a fertile ground for the Dunning-Kruger effect to flourish.
I often enter into discussions believing I know it all about that specific topic, but many times I don’t know enough, far from it. This makes me frustrated and angry when other people disagree with me, and I become dismissive of their arguments. Unfortunately, this is not the right way to learn, or make friends, for that matter.
This is something that I realized very recently, and it really annoys me about myself. I need to be humbler and be aware that I know very little about almost anything in life. It will be a long journey, but at least now I know this is something I need to improve on. I’ll get there.
Is Dunning-Kruger real?
Like all biases, the Dunning-Kruger effect is difficult to avoid altogether. We know we do it, but we aren’t aware of it in most cases. That’s the point with biases: they affect the way we look at the world without us realizing they influence us.
Another thing with biases and psychological effects is that it is challenging to prove definitely that they exist. Social sciences are not hard sciences, and many will argue they aren’t sciences at all. As I mentioned earlier, the Dunning-Kruger effect has been replicated in other experiments many times, but it has also failed to be replicated in many others.
The author of this article, for example, dismantles the results of the original experiment using statistics. He argues that the results of the Dunning-Kruger experiment came that way because of the way the experiment was designed and random inputs gave similar results. If that is really the case, then Dunning-Kruger doesn’t really exist.
The author says there are other well-studied biases that would explain similar (but not the same) phenomena, like for example the over-confidence bias or the better-than-average bias, whereby we all believe we are better than average in many areas, like for example driving, when this is mathematically impossible: a big part of the population has to be worse than the average by definition.
So Dunning-Kruger may not really exist and the experiment wasn’t well designed. So what? It is not my place to say whether this is true or not (for once I would like to admit my lack of expertise on the matter), but still, I think it has some important learnings for all of us, regardless of its existence or not.
Why it matters
All biases matter. We think we are rational beings, like the homo economicus promulgated by economists in their studies, but as it happens, we are flawed, emotional and biased animals. The Dunning-Kruger effect is one of these limiting biases. You won’t be able always to avoid it, but being aware of it will increase the chances of you not missing something because of it.
At the end of the day, life is a journey of searching for self-awareness and learning about oneself. Being aware that when we are not experts on something, we tend to overestimate our expertise is helpful. It allows us to know our limitations better and not screw it up miserably. Being aware of the Dunning-Kruger effect and how it impacts us increases our self-awareness.
Great and wise leaders are self-aware. They know their strengths and limitations and those of their team members. Great leaders know when they don’t know something; they limit the Dunning-Kruger effect’s grasp on their view of the problems.
They also know that some of their team members don’t have the required skills and expertise in some areas. When this is the case, leaders familiar with Dunning-Kruger will know that these team members will probably overestimate their performance level and underestimate the dimension of the problems they face, thus increasing the risk of not tackling the challenge well and creating further problems. Also, low performers will be less receptive to training and development exercises related to the skill they are poor at because they won’t see the need to improve. They will think they are strong enough and have no need to learn anything.
You cannot force someone to learn if they don’t want to. Learning is subjective, personal, and voluntary. There has to be some motivation to do it, otherwise learning simply won’t happen. This is, for me, one of the most important applications of Dunning-Kruger. It makes us overestimate our skills and knowledge in a specific area, thus hindering our development and learning. Why make an effort learning something if you already know enough? The risk of this happening is at its highest at the peak of “Mount Stupid”.
This is something to think about next time you don’t see the need to study or learn more about something because you think you already know enough. Ask yourself, is this true? Do you know enough of the subject to know how much you still don’t know? Or are you being a victim, once again, of the Dunning-Kruger effect?