The Dunning-Kruger effect

Dumb and Dumber (Screengrab)

The Dunning-Kruger effect states that incompetent people are also incompetent in assessing their own performance. Therefore, less competent people think their performance is competent, while smarter people focus on their own flaws.

It explains, among other things, how in a society that places too much value on image, idiots and insane people are able to get ahead by overestimating their value and getting fools to agree with them.

The essence of the Dunning-Kruger effect is that “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than knowledge.” Studies have shown that the most incompetent individuals are the ones that are most convinced of their competence. At work this translates into lots of incompetent people who think they are superstars. And what is worse is that if you have a manager that doesn’t closely supervise work, he or she may judge
performance based on outward appearances using information like the confidence with which these incompetent blockheads speak.

An important corollary of this effect is that the most competent people often underestimate their competence. This is a result of how you frame knowledge. The more you know, the more you focus on what you don’t know. For instance, people who can name 15 of the 50 state capitals tend to think “I know 15.” People who know 45 of the 50 state capitals tend to think “I don’t know 5.”

Business Pundit

Dunning and Kruger, two researchers at Cornell University, described their findings in a paper entitled Unskilled and Unaware Of It: How Difficulties In Recognising Ones Own Incompetence Lead To Inflated Self-Assessments in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Their conclusions can be summarized this way:

  1. incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their own level of skill,
  2. incompetent individuals fail to recognize genuine skill in others,
  3. incompetent individuals fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy,
  4. if they can be trained to substantially improve their own skill level, these individuals can recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill.

Translation: without leadership at the top of the curve who is willing to call people on their incompetence, the incompetents will appear competent to other incompetents and be advanced, possibly even to the presidency.

This causes a mathematical problem for democracies since most people are not particularly competent at leadership, government or logical argument, meaning they are both unable to assess the best leadership choices and sure that they’re right.

It’s essentially similar to the Downing effect:

The Downing effect describes the tendencies of people with below average intelligence quotients (IQs) to overestimate their intelligence, and of people with above average intelligence to underestimate their intelligence. The propensity to predictably misjudge one’s own intelligence was first noted by C. L. Downing who conducted the first cross cultural studies on perceived intelligence.

His studies also evidenced that the ability to accurately estimate others’ intelligence was proportional to one’s own intelligence. This means the lower the IQ score of an individual, the less capably he or she can appreciate and accurately appraise others’ intelligence. The lower an individual’s IQ, the more likely they are to rate themselves as more intelligent than others around them.

Conversely, people with a high IQ, while better at appraising others’ intelligence overall, are still likely to rate people of similar intelligence as themselves as having higher IQs.


That tendency could go a long way toward explaining why many successful societies have relied on strong leaders who had no problem beating down the incompetent with force.

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19 Responses to “The Dunning-Kruger effect”

  1. […] strong intelligence. First, there’s choice paralysis. Next, there’s the aforementioned Dunning-Kruger effect, where people who are out of their league when facing difficult tasks fail to notice their mistakes […]

  2. […] hide behind, but at the end of the day, it’s just an advanced case of confirmation bias, the Dunning-Kruger effect and competitive […]

  3. Eric says:

    This makes perfect sense and I am very glad you posted it. I have felt for quite some time that the incompetent love to pat each other on the back and convince each other how great they are. Somehow this all seems relevant and fitting for the “Reality TV Nation” we have become and our narcissistic tendencies that are becoming more played out and prevalent. I could have never imagined a reality where so many people who really have little to no talent in things that matter have elevated themselves up to such a level of self-importance. And yet, this seems to be the way so many things have become. Strange indeed, but given this research you have posted about it seems to make perfect sense then why we have become what we have become.

  4. […] A. But if we thought it was impossible or unlikely, we don’t feel the need to reach for it. We’re happy as we are, because we aren’t aware of what being “a C student” means unless there’s […]

  5. […] Here we see the correlation between abilities and personality traits. These people aren’t bad at economics because they are liberals; they became liberals because they’re bad at economics, and have related personality traits. If you’re not good at orderliness, you’d better not have a personality geared toward it — in addition, you’re unlikely to have that personality, since appreciation for orderliness only comes with an ability to do it well (this is a restatement of the Dunning-Kruger effect). […]

  6. […] This is why politicians ignore and manipulate you, average citizen: you don’t understand how government works, like you don’t understand even the basics of how your car or computer work, like how you couldn’t successfully run a farm, or even excise an infected appendix. So you get the Saturday morning cartoon version because if they told you the truth, you’d be sure they were wrong. […]

  7. […] are incompatible which is why class war is a necessary condition in every society; you might blame the Dunning-Kruger effect, saying that the proles just don’t understand what the exceptional are thinking and so oppose it […]

  8. […] the majority of our people don’t understand basic concepts in economics and politics, and per the Dunning-Kruger effect, assume they are smarter than those who waste their time with such silly […]

  9. […] wrong. Unless of course you find an “officialTM” source saying exactly the opposite of what they’re saying, you have no reason to reject. Not wanting to or not liking the looks of things isn’t enough. […]

  10. […] these conditions are natural to the psychology of the resentful or the dumb; do we need to mention the Dunning-Kruger effect? I’m not trying to defend Judeo-Christianity per se, except that as Schopenhauer argued, it […]

  11. […] that this is just symbol-play and demagoguery. They’re manipulating a captive audience of Dunning-Kruger status-climbing useful idiots, and they are oblivious to the damage they […]

  12. […] the proles form a crowd, and unaware of the superior logic of anything more complicated than what they can understand, they join up like a lynch mob to smash down the bad ideas and replace them with “safe” […]

  13. […] the inner brat in our population. The result is a lowest common denominator of human thinking. The Dunning-Kruger effect obliterates the ability to plan for the […]

  14. Rachmaninova says:

    I’m thinking of quitting my job because there are too many dummies in my office who think they’re Einstein.

  15. […] Dunning-Kruger effect tells us that those who are least competent will see themselves as more competent, while those who […]

  16. […] is the Dunning-Kruger effect as policy: what people understand the most easily becomes the highest value of the land. It is what […]

  17. […] what you write down, they will convert it into what fits their own agenda, because — per Dunning-Kruger — this is what they understand and where their understanding […]

  18. […] reason is that while the Dunning-Kruger effect limits what we can understand, and makes smart people cowed as a result, it also allows us […]

  19. […] things they will be biologically unable to understand and (b) they are biologically compelled to reject the understanding of others of these […]

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