The Dunning-Kruger effect relates to how people recognize their own knowledge or skill over a particular matter.
Have you ever seen a person who had a mistaken perception about their expertise on something? People can either overestimate or underestimate their mastery of a subject.
This article explains why the Dunning-Kruger effect is relevant to your career and decisions and how to avoid or best deal with it.
What is the Dunning-Kruger effect?
The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias described by researchers David Dunning and Justin Kruger. It influences a person's behavior, making them believe that they know more than they actually know.
Their lack of knowledge in a particular area can make them unable to distinguish how well they are really performing.
This means that many incompetent people are often unable to recognize their incompetence because they don't have the necessary tools to evaluate or are indifferent to their own bias.
It is worth pointing out that this effect has nothing to do with low intelligence or IQ. The truth is that anyone is subject to the influence of the Dunning-Kruger effect.
If competency is required to recognize incompetence, truly incompetent people will be both incompetent and unaware of their incompetence. Kruger & Dunning
People who are experts in a certain area may think that their ability extends to other areas outside their specialty. For example, a math teacher might feel confident to give a big speech about organic chemistry even if they don't really know much about it.
Overconfidence, failing to recognize one's mistakes, and not listening to criticism or feedback are common manifestations of the Dunning-Kruger effect.
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What are the consequences of the Dunning-Kruger effect?
The Dunning-Kruger effect can influence anyone, no matter their IQ. But we know it happens due to a lack of self-awareness or self-evaluation.
Therefore, if a person doesn't stop to evaluate and compare their skills in relation to others, they won't be able to assess their performance accurately.
The following situations can contribute to the manifestation of this bias effect in people:
David Dunning proposed the concept of "Double Burden," which is associated with a person's lack of knowledge or skill in a certain area.
Since this person is not skilled in that subject, they cannot perform well, and consequently, they cannot identify that they are performing poorly because they ignore the subject.
In other words, the double burden is a cycle in which not having knowledge and skill prevents you from recognizing the lack of that knowledge and skill.
Lack of Metacognition
Meta-cognition is related to the awareness and self-monitoring of oneself. It's the ability to look at your behavior and skills from another point of view that is not yourself.
If you don't take a step back to do this internal process of self-evaluation and comparison, it can be difficult to understand your failures and mistakes. Ultimately, it will make you miss opportunities for improvement.
Not knowing enough about a subject
Sometimes, having little knowledge of a subject can make you believe that you know all there is to know about it.
In this context, overconfidence is the behavior that results from people who possess little knowledge about a particular subject; and thus believe themselves to be experts on that subject.
For example, when a person who has read only the back cover of a book assumes they know everything there is to know about it and that they understood the entire content of the book.
Or when a coworker, or a family member, has only read the title of a news article about vaccines and yet, thanks to the Dunning-Kruger effect, believes that they are an expert in immunology.
The danger of the Dunning-Kruger effect is exactly this, making people with very little knowledge about something consider themselves experts, generating bad results, and possibly even jeopardizing an important project.
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Why is the Dunning-Kruger effect relevant for you?
Knowing about the existence of the Dunning-Kruger effect is very important for our relationship with ourselves and the world around us.
Understanding the effect and how it manifests itself can make us start to build self-criticism about our knowledge and learning process.
In this sense, knowing about this bias helps us understand that:
- the view we have of ourselves does not always reflect reality;
- it is risky to make decisions based only on our personal experience, especially in areas that are not our specialty;
- the most confident people are not always the ones with the most knowledge;
- nobody is capable of knowing everything about everything. There are levels of knowledge, and it is important to understand which of these levels we are at.
The Dunning-Kruger effect career-wise
Sometimes, when you're very talented at something, you might measure everyone else in comparison to you because you assume that what comes easily to you also comes easily to others. When this happens, you fail to see your own mastery and talents.
In contrast, if you evolve at something very challenging for you, you may wrongly assume that you're talented at this. And yet, you might be finally approaching an average level.
Assuming you're better than you actually are at something can make you miss out on opportunities to learn and grow, which is essential to evolve as a professional and cultivating your career.
Furthermore, people under the Dunning-Kruger effect may experience frustration and disappointment more often. For example, believe you are doing an excellent job, expect a promotion or recognition, and receive neither.
Collectively, we risk losing even more. If experts don't perceive themselves like that, we miss the chance to learn from truly talented and knowledgeable teachers, as their confidence keeps them in the dark.
In comparison, it's easy to find people with below-average capabilities ready to preach a village. This means the most uninformed fellows are also the most confident ones.
Not only are ignorant people extremely resistant to being taught as they believe they know better, but they also help share misinformation.
Fake news dissemination
Moving from the individual level to a broader and more delicate sphere, let's discuss a little bit about the impacts of the Dunning-Kruger effect on society.
We commented that people who are under this effect tend to be overconfident, even if they have superficial knowledge about a topic.
Because they are overconfident, people under the Dunning-Kruger effect tend to expose themselves more easily about their convictions and even facts – even if they are wrong – to others.
This attitude ends up resulting in the dissemination of misinformation.
In a world where sharing information with the entire globe is only a click away, the Dunning-Kruger effect can drastically impact the dissemination of fake news.
It is not uncommon to see misinformation of various kinds, such as about:
- health and vaccines;
Here, we're not going into the detail of whether the misinformation is created on purpose. But the point is that the Dunning-Kruger effect has its share of contributing to false information and even conspiracy theories.
Of course, Dunning-Kruger is not solely responsible for this wave of misinformation we see worldwide. Still, it does contribute to unqualified and overconfident people getting up on stage and giving speeches to an audience that will eventually take their words as absolute truths.
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How to avoid the Dunning-Kruger effect?
The simple fact of knowing about the existence of the Dunning-Kruger effect already helps to avoid it.
Still, it is essential to keep in mind some practices that can help us recognize our skills, shortcomings, and actual level of knowledge.
- Look at your peers: in the case of the Dunning-Kruger effect, making small comparisons with the people around you can be positive. Observing other people's performance and skills can make you more aware of how well you perform. But remember, comparing yourself too much can lead to other problems. So do this to improve, not diminish yourself;
- Keep learning and practicing: instead of being satisfied with your knowledge, keep learning and studying. As you gain more understanding, you will be able to discern better how much knowledge you have and how much you have left to learn;
- Ask for feedback: be open-minded to hear constructive criticism and understand how you can improve. Listening to feedback is not always easy, but essential for our development and growth;
- Mull over important decisions: the confidence to make hasty decisions can be a manifestation of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Before making any important decisions, stop and assess the risks. That way, you understand whether your knowledge is sufficient for the decision to be made in the best possible way;
- Challenge your own beliefs: we grow up with opinions and ideas we have always considered to be true. At some point, it makes sense to question our beliefs, listen to other perspectives, and seek fresh perspectives;
- Beware of confirmation bias: people are inclined to disbelief whenever someone says something different from what they believe to be true. This way, confirmation bias makes people seek and access information that only agrees with their opinions.
The other side of it
The study by Dunning and Kruger identified that people with less ability generally overestimated their skills and knowledge.
An interesting point also found in the study – but not the focus of the discussions – was that more capable people might have a contrary view of their abilities, underestimating their knowledge.
As we have seen, the more knowledge we have about a subject, the more we know our learning level. In other words, it is even normal that the more we know about a topic, the more likely we believe there is still more to learn about it.
However, in these situations, there is a line that, if crossed, could lead to Impostor Syndrome.
Unlike the Dunning-Kruger effect, Impostor Syndrome is not a cognitive bias but a psychological disorder that causes people to fail to see their capabilities and to believe that they are frauds constantly.
Impostor Syndrome is not necessarily the opposite of the Dunning-Kruger effect. The study identified both sides, the overestimation of the less competent people and the underestimation of the more competent people.
Impostor Syndrome is caused by deeper factors that are more complex to identify and justify than just "high knowledge and skills."
Therefore, it is essential to be careful with these two extremes and keep our self-awareness and self-assessment in line with our actual level of knowledge and skill.
This can be challenging, but it is worth working on our knowledge perception to avoid cognitive biases like the Dunning-Kruger.