Is something wrong if you are smarter

The Dunning-Kruger Effect: what is it?

© gettyimages / AlexeyZel

Why do incompetent people often have the greatest self-confidence? This is due to the Dunning-Kruger effect. A brief explanation of the phenomenon.

Regardless of whether it is a professional or private matter: Those who know the least about a topic are unfortunately often the ones who think they know better than others. The fault is the Dunning-Kruger effect, which the psychologists Justin Kruger and David Dunning from Cornell University discovered in a study in 1999.

The said study found that especially people with poorly developed skills tend to overestimate their abilities. And the snake bites its own tail: it is precisely because of their incompetence that these people are unable to recognize that they are incompetent. Instead, they believe that they are superior to others and have particularly high levels of self-confidence.

In the study, the two psychologists performed tests on their subjects that required general knowledge, intelligence, and common sense. Sometimes it was about understanding humor, logical reasoning and grammar. In addition, the test subjects were asked to assess how well they performed in relation to the other test subjects. It turned out that precisely those who had performed the worst in the tests rated themselves as above average.

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The vicious circle of incompetence

Dunning and Kruger concluded

  1. that less competent people tend to overestimate themselves
  2. that they also fail to recognize the competence and intelligence of others
  3. that they therefore do not recognize the extent of their incompetence and do not see the need for further training and thus to increase their competence.

Incompetent people therefore have difficulties to free themselves from the vicious circle of their incompetence. However, it is not completely hopeless for them. Dunning and Kruger were also able to observe that the less competent subjects were able to improve not only in their test results, but also in their self-assessment through exercise and further information. What does that mean? Education and honest feedback can help less competent people identify and fill their knowledge gaps. However, this can also backfire: If the feedback is not formulated carefully enough, the Dunning-Kruger effect sets in again and the incompetent person feels like a “misunderstood genius”.

By the way: The Dunning-Kruger effect is not, as one might assume, the counterpart to the so-called impostor syndrome, according to which particularly competent people underestimate their abilities. In their study, the scientists emphasize that competent people assess themselves more realistically, but not necessarily worse than they are. On the contrary: Even those who are competent tend to at least slightly overestimate themselves.

Awarded a satire prize

Dunning and Kruger publish their results in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology under the title: "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments". Loosely translated: "Not aware of your own inability: How difficulties in recognizing your own incompetence lead to overconfidence". The Dunning-Kruger effect has hardly appeared in the specialist literature so far. But all the more so in popular scientific texts as well as on blogs and other websites. In 2000 the phenomenon won the satirical "Ig Nobel Prize" in the field of psychology. The two authors of the study do not take themselves too seriously either. Already on the first page of their publication it says: The unconscious incompetence shows up in many areas, including team leadership, child-rearing and conducting a questionable psychological study.

Does the Dunning-Kruger effect sound like an everyday phenomenon? Right. In part 2 of our series of articles here on HUMANRESOURCESMANAGER we have 3 examples for you.