The Dunning-Kruger Effect

Once again, I had my doubts about posting entries from my journal. This time it concerned the two most recent ones, Confirmation of What I Always Knew and, in particular, the one prior to that, Should. With the latter especially, I debated with myself whether to publish such introspection. Reading it made me feel less sure of myself, vulnerable, even inferior, and my thoughts turned to my peers and how some of them probably don’t have such doubts about themselves.

In the end I reasoned, as I have before, that the posts have their place in the bigger picture of this blog because a) they are relevant to the sorts of hurdles so many of us face on our journeys and b) the texts are parts of my own journey and are ones I would prefer to have the courage to share, because of the candour I believe is necessary to make this blog as effective as possible.

Following days of internal debate I finally decided to publish, and it was only after I had made the decision, that I came across an article which provided me with all the reassurance I could have asked for. Also, the fact that I found the article immediately after my decision to go live was a source of encouragement and confirmation that I was on the right path.

The article showed me that whatever I may think of myself, I am not incompetent (although, as you will see, even this assertion has to be challenged), and that self-awareness is essential for all of us, yet it is clearly not as common as one might think. It concerned the Dunning-Kruger Effect, named after Justin Kruger & David Dunning, the two psychologists who conducted the study. Also known as the ‘Above-Average Effect‘, it highlights what is known as ‘Illusory Superiority‘, and is succinctly referred to in the title of their paper as ‘Unskilled and Unaware of It‘.

Its findings are significant. They demonstrate that incompetent people:

  • dramatically overestimate their abilities
  • are unaware of their own incompetence
  • are also unaware of the competence of others
  • only see their incompetence when they (are helped to) become competent

Subjects were tested on humour, logical reasoning and English grammar. There are a number of nuances to the research and you can read the paper here, but not only did it conclude that incompetent people think more highly of themselves than their results should allow, the researchers also discovered that, interestingly, at the very top of the scale the highly competent people, when asked to rate their performance relative to others, underestimated their abilities.

In a subsequent part of the research the competent and the incompetent were allowed to see each others’ answers and then rate their own performances again. Upon seeing the responses of the other group, the competent people rated themselves more accurately relative to their peers. However, the self-assessment of the incompetent people remained unchanged.

From this, the authors of the paper were able to conclude that the top performers’ initial underestimation of their performance was not due to a lack of confidence or low self-esteem or because of any doubt about their abilities, but because of their perception that others must possess the same level of ability as themselves; that others must be able to perform to the same level. And, more revealingly, it meant that not only could the incompetent people not see their own incompetence, they were also unable to see or recognise the competence of others.

The assumption made by the competent people is a point I stress with my clients: just because you can do something (easily) does not mean other people can. In registering this, people become more aware of how good they are. In the same way, I am reminded of the blind spots we all have, to which we remain oblivious unless they are pointed out to us by others.

There are two more aspects of the research which deserve a mention. The first of them concerns feedback and is referred to in the paper itself. The other was discovered in separate research and highlights the intriguing discovery that this whole effect is not a universal phenomenon. Firstly, one would assume that the incompetent, at some stage in life, realise they are incompetent. Unfortunately, as the research shows, their incompetence prevents that process occurring without any outside influence. But with effective (critical) feedback they can become more competent and in doing so they, paradoxically, recognise their incompetence.

The authors point out that critical feedback is neither as common as it needs to be, nor is it always received appropriately.

But perhaps most fascinating is the fact that this effect is not found everywhere. It is a western phenomenon. It is more pronounced in the US than it is in Europe but in East Asian countries the effect is the opposite; people tend to underestimate their abilities, because they are more focused on self-improvement and getting along with others. As Heine et al (1999) conclude in their paper, Beyond Self-Presentation: Evidence for Self-Criticism Among Japanese, ‘This cultural practice of self-criticism appears to serve Japanese in their quest to achieve connection and interpersonal harmony with others.’

And so it is that, in this research, I find more confirmation for the need for self-awareness. There are those who have no accurate assessment of their shortfalls, but who can be assisted, with effective feedback, to become more aware of themselves. And for everyone else it is reason enough to continue.


In the articles I read on this subject there were a number of quotes which were used to add weight to the researchers’ findings:

‘Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge’
– Charles Darwin

‘One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision’
– Bertrand Russell

‘He who knows best, best knows how little he knows’
– Thomas Jefferson


11 years ago: Should | Confirmation of What I Always Knew
Related research papers: Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Sel-Assessments | Beyond Self-Presentation: Evidence for Self-Criticism Among Japanese

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