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GuidesResearch methodsUnpacking the Dunning–Kruger effect (with examples)

Unpacking the Dunning–Kruger effect (with examples)

Last updated

11 January 2024


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Hugh Good

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a type of cognitive bias. Psychological, or cognitive, bias is the tendency to make decisions or take action based on an error in judgment. We may do this without realizing it by making decisions based on past experiences, beliefs, and preferences.

These biases act as a shortcut for decision-making, even though the outcome may be negative. We’re all susceptible to these biases, but by being self-aware, we can try to avoid them and their negative outcomes. 

What is the Dunning–Kruger effect?

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people lack knowledge of or have insufficient abilities in a certain area and overestimate their abilities. This can result in mistakes, poor decision-making, and mistrust by co-workers, friends, and family.

The Dunning–Kruger effect was first documented by David Dunning and Justin Kruger in a 1999 paper. These Cornell University psychologists conducted four studies testing participants on grammar, logic, and humor. Subjects were also asked to predict their performance.

The researchers found that the participants who had the lower scores overestimated their performance by a staggering amount. The combination of poor self-awareness and low cognitive ability was found to result in this overestimation of capabilities.

Dunning–Kruger effect vs. imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome is also a cognitive bias, but it is the opposite of the Dunning–Kruger effect. While the Dunning–Kruger effect makes people believe they are overcompetent, imposter syndrome is a feeling of inadequacy and self-doubt, sometimes with a lack of awareness we’re even experiencing it.

It is typically found in highly competitive environments where someone feels their performance doesn't stack up against the competition. When a person with imposter syndrome has success, they will normally give credit to luck or being at the right place at the right time.

Although the Dunning–Kruger effect and imposter syndrome seem to be opposites, they share some similarities:

  • Both are cognitive biases

  • Both deal with self-awareness and self-value

  • Both can have negative results

  • People may not be aware they are experiencing them

Why does the Dunning–Kruger effect happen?

Researchers and psychologists disagree about the causes of the Dunning–Kruger effect. Some theories are as follows:

  • Dunning and Kruger maintain that people are not only incompetent, but that incompetence keeps them from realizing they are incompetent. This causes them to overestimate their skill levels, fail to recognize their lack of skill, and be unaware of the skills of others. Keep in mind this is a sign of incompetence, not low intelligence.

  • Some believe that people experiencing the Dunning–Kruger effect are unable to look at their own decisions and performance objectively. Because of this inability, they are often arrogant, feel superior to others, and are unable to recognize the difference between their performance and that of others.

  • Sometimes a small amount of knowledge can be dangerous. In this case, people who know the smallest bit of information on a topic will either misjudge the depth of the topic or their knowledge as compared to others. This can lead to an inflated self-worth and a disproportionate view of their abilities.

  • When a person has been praised for their past performance, they may believe their knowledge or skill level is above others in all topics. They may not consider the talent pool or the level of skill.

What's the harm in the Dunning–Kruger effect?

The harm in the Dunning–Kruger effect can be far-reaching and long-lasting.

Making poor decisions

This could encompass all areas of your life, including your career, your family, or your relationships. Because you believe your knowledge and abilities are superior to what they really are, you could end up in an unfulfilling career, take on projects you can’t complete, or even make purchases you cannot afford. You could make decisions that result in expensive mistakes or failures.

Resisting feedback

Many people experiencing the Dunning–Kruger effect resist criticism or feedback because they already believe they “know it all.” This can lead to a lack of personal and professional growth, and mistrust between colleagues.

Forming opinions based on misinformation

People who are overly confident or arrogant about particular topics often form opinions based on what they think they know. This leads to the spread of false information or the rejection of rules or evidence-based policies.

Dangerous consequences

If errors or mistakes in your area of responsibility could be hazardous, overestimating your skills could result in dangerous consequences for you and others.

Dunning–Kruger effect examples

To get a better understanding of the Dunning–Kruger effect, let’s look at some real-life examples.

Fyre Festival 

The infamous Fyre Festival was touted to be the trendiest, celebrity-infused festival of 2017. The organizer recruited influencers, investors, and ticket buyers for a catastrophic event that experienced problems with security, food, accommodation, and medical services.

The organizer believed he had the skills and knowledge to pull it off in a short time, resulting in people losing money, employees going unpaid, and an eventual prison sentence for fraud.

Theranos executives

Another high-profile example of the Dunning–Kruger effect is the Theranos executives. Founded by Elizabeth Holmes, a college dropout with no business or medical experience, she sold investors on her ideas that were based on flawed medical research. She hired executives with no experience to run the company, including her boyfriend, brother, and others, and continued to grow the company.

Due to Holmes’ lack of the experience she claimed she had, the company later collapsed, with many of the executives fined or jailed.

Friends and family

There are many instances when you engage in social situations with your friends and family that demonstrate the Dunning–Kruger effect. Perhaps it is the new boyfriend who touts his awards or service history, overinflating his importance. It could be the aunt who brings the same terrible casserole to family functions and cannot understand why no one eats it.

You can also see the effect when you dine out with friends and the same person always picks up the check, even though they cannot afford it.


Driving a vehicle can be a dangerous situation if you have no experience. That is why so many over-confident teens have accidents. They believe they have the skills but do not.

An elderly person who believes their sight and reflexes are good enough to drive could put themselves and others in danger if they overestimate their abilities.


Some sporting figures believe they’re better than their competitors, when in fact they’re not. The belief in abilities that they don’t have may start at school, for example, a school quarterback who sets records in their division. When they go to college, however, their skills are not as good as their competitors, though they believe they are. The repercussions go beyond lost play time to loss of income, injuries, and depression. 

Work and career

If you overestimate your knowledge of certain topics, you could choose the wrong career path. This could lead to frustration and disappointment, or even ultimately unemployment when your skills do not live up to your claims.

Personal characteristics

The Dunning–Kruger effect can affect your personality. It can make you appear arrogant and cause a lack of respect and trust from your family, friends, and co-workers. People may consider you a know-it-all and will ultimately stop believing and trusting you.

Talent show

School talent shows often have performances by students who do not have the same level of talent as their classmates. When they don’t win the competition, they usually attribute it to unfairness of some kind.

You also see this in televised talent competitions. There is always the person who believes they can sing and is disappointed or angry when they’re not chosen.


A person who purchases a car that is flashy or expensive may do so because they want to portray wealth they don’t have. Because they can’t pay for it, they make sacrifices in other, less visible, areas to offset the expense. Subsequently, they may get in trouble and lose the car or have to trade it for a less expensive model.


People on social media often make claims about their political beliefs based on opinions, not facts. An example is the man who claims his political party has cured all the ills of the prior administration. He does not have the facts or data to back the claims, instead basing it on his opinions and beliefs.

How to avoid the Dunning–Kruger effect

To avoid the Dunning–Kruger effect, you must first accept it can affect anyone. It does not mean you lack intelligence, but simply that you lack the expertise you believe you have. 

As you learn about a topic, you begin to understand how much you don’t know. As you gain more and more information, you can reassess your knowledge and abilities. This will help you to improve your self-confidence and become more realistic about where you fit with your competition.

To get a more accurate self-assessment, realize that assessing yourself is not an easy task. You may be too critical, continue to self-inflate, or not have enough information to know what you don't know. It is all about repetition. Learn and practice. Keep digging, make inquiries, and find a mentor. As you dig into the topic, you’ll see how much you have to learn, helping you more accurately determine your level of expertise.

Ask others for help in determining your expertise. Learn to take criticism constructively and use the feedback to make positive adjustments. Understand that you are human, and humans make mistakes. It is never wrong to ask others how you are doing and what you can do to improve. It also gives you a good idea of what they perceive as your level of expertise.

Challenge yourself and your beliefs. Avoid jumping to conclusions. If you’re making off-the-cuff decisions based solely on what you already know or think you know, you may be making mistakes. Take time to think it through. If you have a belief or expectation, find the information to back that up before committing yourself to an action based solely on your perceptions.


What is the difference between overconfidence and the Dunning–Kruger effect?

Though they both refer to unwarranted confidence, overconfidence bias refers to the tendency of a person to overestimate their knowledge or ability in a specific area, while the Dunning–Kruger effect refers to how people who lack knowledge or expertise in a task overestimate themselves. Overconfidence bias is more universal and the Dunning-Kruger denotes overconfidence in those unskilled at a particular task.

What type of bias is the Dunning–Kruger effect?

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias, which is a tendency to make decisions or take action based on an error in judgment. Other cognitive biases include , , anchoring effect, self-serving bias, framing effect, attentional bias, and bandwagon effect.

What are the four stages of the Dunning–Kruger effect?

  • Unconscious incompetence: The first stage is when the person doesn't know how to do something but doesn't recognize they don’t have the skills required for the task

  • Conscious incompetence: This stage is when the person recognizes they do not know how to do something and realizes they need to adopt or learn new skills

  • Conscious competence: The person knows how to do the task but it must be broken into doable steps that they can consciously follow

  • Unconscious competence: The person has enough skills to do the task and can perform it with ease

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