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GuidesResearch methodsWhat is the Dunning–Kruger effect?

What is the Dunning–Kruger effect?

Last updated

5 February 2024

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Dovetail Editorial Team

Imagine sitting in a presentation where the speaker is talking with a lot of conviction about a topic. The trouble is, they barely understand it.

People around the room are nodding along. The speaker is presenting with such confidence that few would doubt their expertise. Not even the speaker is aware they are giving false information. They think their knowledge is absolute.

However, some people in the room are more knowledgeable than the speaker. Unfortunately, they are reluctant to speak out. They might not even be aware of their expertise because they lack confidence in their knowledge.

This curious phenomenon is the Dunning–Kruger effect, a psychological concept that explores the intersection between competence and confidence.

The Dunning–Kruger effect provides a double-barrel explanation for something that can significantly impact individuals and businesses. It explains why some people are overconfident in their abilities, dominating debates even when their ideas are clearly wrong. Meanwhile, those who truly understand something may be reluctant to defend their position, assuming others have more knowledge about it than they do.

In this article, we’ll explore the complexities of confidence in the face of incompetence and how to prevent the Dunning–Kruger effect from negatively impacting your business.

What is the Dunning–Kruger effect?

The Dunning–Kruger effect was first discovered in 1999 by researchers David Dunning and Justin Kruger at Cornell University.

Dunning and Kruger found that those who perform worst at learning a concept gain undue confidence in their knowledge. In other words, they are too ignorant about their lack of knowledge to realize they don’t understand something.

The second part of the research found that those who learn a concept well underestimate their ability because they think their peers are learning at the same rate or better than they are. In this case, they might be reluctant to speak up to demonstrate their knowledge because they think others know better.

It’s easy to see how this can create a negative dynamic in a business discussion. Those with the least knowledge about a subject are more likely to speak up to defend their position, while those with greater understanding might step aside.

The research

Dunning and Kruger conducted their research on a group of 65 students, judging their skills in logic, grammar, and humor.

They found that the students who scored in the lowest 25% estimated they had scored high. Specifically, those who scored in the 12th percentile predicted that they had scored in the 62nd percentile. Meanwhile, those who scored in the top 25% estimated that they had achieved about the same percentile.

Other scientists have challenged the validity of the Dunning–Kruger effect over the decades. Criticism is based largely on claims that the research “double-dipped” by asking the same students to rate their performance. Another factor is that statistics tend to regress to the mean in observational studies.

Despite this criticism, other research has been conducted to counter these claims.

For example, Feld and colleagues examined students projecting their performance on an economics exam in 2017. Students were grouped not by their performance on this exam but by their GPA on previous courses. Although this more objective division somewhat diluted the Dunning–Kruger effect, it was still quite prominent in how well students thought they had performed in the exam.

The stages

Researchers have come to define four stages of the Dunning–Kruger effect over the decades, also known as “the hierarchy of competence.”

  1. Unconscious incompetence: people are unaware of what they don’t know.

  2. Conscious incompetence: people are aware that they don’t know something but haven’t taken steps to gain knowledge.

  3. Conscious competence: people strive to learn about a subject they don’t know about.

  4. Unconscious competence: people have gained such extensive knowledge about a subject that they take for granted how much they know.

Being aware of where you and others stand in these stages can help you overcome the challenges it causes.

Dunning–Kruger effect vs. imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome is recognized as the polar opposite of the Dunning–Kruger effect.

People who gain a level of skill in a field believe they are not sufficiently knowledgeable and will be exposed as a fraud by the “real experts.” They feel they are an imposter and may hold themselves back from gaining promotions or serving as a mentor.

Is Dunning–Kruger a type of bias?

The Dunning–Kruger effect is recognized as a cognitive bias that prevents people from objectively understanding their knowledge about a given subject.

Examples of the Dunning–Kruger effect

The Dunning–Kruger effect might be seen as an amusing anomaly, but it can have life-threatening consequences.

Vnuk and colleagues examined the effect on 95 medical students taking cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) training in 2006. Thirty-six students failed the training. When asked how they thought they performed, only three recognized their failure. Even when shown a video and an explanation of how they failed, only 17 admitted their failure.

In the end, 16 students believed they could competently perform CPR despite being shown proof that they couldn’t.

In another real-life scenario, a 2018 survey of 1,300 Americans conducted by Motta and colleagues discovered that roughly one-third believed they knew as much or more than medical experts about the link between vaccines and autism. In reality, these respondents had limited knowledge about vaccines and the causes of autism.

What is the impact of the Dunning–Kruger effect?

Individual effects

The first thing to know about the Dunning–Kruger effect is that it applies to everyone. It could affect you whenever you venture into a new field of study.

For example, you might be quite good at physics or math but stumble when it comes to learning a new language. If you don’t recognize the effect, you might think you’re doing quite well at learning French—but when you try communicating with a French person, they may respond with a blank stare. In the worst-case scenario, you might say something rude without realizing it.

The Dunning–Kruger effect will have two negative consequences for people in the workplace:

  • People who are overconfident in their abilities will be unwilling to learn skills that can benefit the company. They will continue to perform their tasks in ways that don’t meet company standards, reducing their company or team’s productivity. They will also expect promotions and rewards for performing exemplary work, only to be turned down by supervisors who think quite the opposite.

  • Workers who adopt new skills and contribute to the company may feel they are performing below average, so they won’t apply for promotions. They will also be reluctant to serve as mentors to those who are less skilled.

In either situation, individuals may not reach out to their superiors for input on how they are performing. Instead, they will remain completely misguided about their performance.

Systemic effects

The Dunning–Kruger effect has major implications for businesses and society.

When those who have the skills and should be leaders fail to step up because they don’t recognize their talents, a business or society is left with less qualified leaders. People who are ill-suited to lead will fill the void as they mistakenly believe they have superior knowledge. They have the confidence to take on leadership roles, even though they will probably lead employees in the wrong direction.

When those who lack knowledge in a field are those most willing to share the knowledge they (think) they have, they create a void in society. For example, if a vocal minority who believe vaccines are linked to autism repeat this information confidently, they will convince many people of their claim’s validity.

Scientists will try to refute these claims, but they may be too late. They might not present the scientific evidence with as much confidence or gusto as those who spread the incorrect information in the first place.

Global political systems are also susceptible to the effects of the Dunning–Kruger effect.

When a large portion of a population lacks knowledge about political issues, any politician or leader speaking with confidence can easily sway them. These voters will accept any small amount of information as gospel, be it correct or incorrect. In many cases, they will go on to spread misinformation themselves.

How it affects product

A serious consequence of the Dunning–Kruger effect could be in the area of product development.

For example, an entire product development cycle could be wasted if a vocal minority in a team determines that it’s on the right track when it clearly isn’t.

Imagine a team is developing a new feature in an existing product. People who don’t fully understand the feature but think they do will overlook its flaws. Those who have the skills to spot the flaws might be reluctant to point them out because they’re not confident about their knowledge.

The confidently ignorant are also unwilling to listen to outside experts as they think their knowledge is greater. Their confidence in their ignorance would lead to the release of a flawed product that would harm customer relationships and the company’s performance as a whole.

To combat this, leaders must establish rigorous testing routines to push design teams out of their protective shells.

Outside review could pull the blinders from those with the greatest but misguided confidence and provide a forum for those who suspect flaws but are unwilling to speak up.

Why the Dunning–Kruger effect occurs

Dunning and Kruger often refer to the cause of the effect as a “dual burden.” In other words, those who experience incompetence also lack the self-awareness to recognize that incompetence, meaning they feel they are doing just fine.

An inability to recognize a lack of skill and mistakes

Incompetence prevents someone from recognizing their lack of skills and mistakes. When you don’t understand something well enough to distinguish between right and wrong, your brain will naturally assume you’re doing it right. This gives you the confidence you need to stand behind your actions.

A lack of metacognition

Incompetence also creates a lack of “metacognition,” or the ability to step outside yourself and honestly assess your behaviors and abilities.

In other words, when you can only evaluate yourself from your limited viewpoint, you can’t see where you have flaws. Without the ability to assess how your brain is working, you have no motivation to improve.

A little knowledge can lead to overconfidence

You can see how the Dunning–Kruger effect creates risk according to the old saying, “A little knowledge can be dangerous.”

Those who gain a little knowledge in a field without realizing there is more to know will become overconfident.

Scientists will rarely claim an absolute solution to an issue. This is because they know they may obtain more knowledge later that could disrupt their claim. On the other hand, those who feel they have gained ultimate knowledge because of their inability to learn more are willing to make absolute claims.

How to overcome the Dunning–Kruger effect

Awareness

Learning about the Dunning–Kruger effect is the first step in overcoming it. Knowing it exists makes you aware of how it might be at work within your life and your team. The ability to step outside of yourself and the workings of your business allows you to see the effect’s impact. 

Self-evaluation

On a personal level, self-evaluation when learning about a new topic will help you mitigate the effect.

As soon as you start feeling confident in what you are doing, take a step back and ensure you have gained all the knowledge you can.

At the other extreme, if you feel you can’t get a full grasp on the subject, you should recognize that you are on the right track. Only when you gain a certain level of competence in a subject will you understand how much more there is to learn.

Get an outside perspective

Reach out for support from peers or mentors to get an outside perspective to improve your learning experience. This will help you avoid getting stuck on the low end of the spectrum where you gain only a small amount of knowledge but you’re confident that you know everything.

When you’re learning well, you’ll be encouraged to continue and recognize that you have tapped into a skill that can serve you in the future.

Mitigating the Dunning–Kruger effect in your team

Understanding the Dunning–Kruger effect from a work team or business perspective will make you a better leader. You’ll recognize the bias creeping into your team in time to avert a crisis.

You’ll also be able to set standards and procedures that can help all team members improve. This prevents a fractured environment where some team members have more knowledge and skills than others.

Create a mentorship program

First, create a mentorship program with new employees, providing opportunities for new hires to get feedback as they develop new skills within the company.

This approach ensures new employees don’t get stuck in their knowledge base. It also allows you to monitor them, giving you the chance to quickly recognize when someone isn’t developing at the pace you would expect.

Those who are confident in their lack of knowledge may be comfortable where they are and resistant to change—but building these systems into your work environment will help them overcome their weakness or realize they need to find opportunities elsewhere.

Set policies

Next, create policies that set out the need for outside reviews or user experience testing in product development. This will help ensure you don’t have an insular situation where confident, underskilled team members drive the process. They may not recognize flaws that are obvious to others.

Having structured reviews in place also encourages skilled but unconfident team members to share their concerns about how a product is developing. They can do so without the fear of being beaten back and belittled by their overconfident colleagues.

The worst time to find you have an internal Dunning–Kruger effect situation is after you have dispatched a new product. Your customers won’t be concerned about your internal biases; they’ll just see a product that doesn’t work for them and take their custom elsewhere.

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