Why can we not perceive our own abilities?
Dunning–Kruger Effect, explained.
What is the Dunning-Kruger Effect?
The Dunning-Kruger effect effect occurs when a person’s lack of knowledge and skills in a certain area cause them to overestimate their own competence. By contrast, this effect also causes those who excel in a given area to think the task is simple for everyone, and underestimate their relative abilities as well.
Where this bias occurs
Imagine you and your friends decide to try something new—separately, you all start learning Spanish. Within a few days, you can say 10-15 sentences. You’re a bit disappointed, and believe you should be able to say more by now. To you, the language is quite simple, but having a good grip on it causes you to think it is simple for everyone, and that you therefore should have done more.
Your friend, by contrast, has learned just a few words. He is amazed by his progress. He doesn’t yet have the knowledge and skills to know that he’s actually pronouncing those words wrong, and forming grammatically incorrect sentences with them. He’s learned the least in the group, but his lack of knowledge prevents him from understanding his own mistakes. Moreover, his lack of access to comparison causes him to overestimate his relative ability. His ignorance of how far others, like yourself, have come, keeps him thinking he’s excelling, when he is actually learning at below-average speed.
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As a result of the Dunning-Kruger effect, you may not know what you’re good at, because you assume that what comes easily to you also comes easily to everyone else. You are therefore robbed of the ability to spot your own specialties and talents.
Moreover, when you excel at what is challenging to you, you might accidentally fall prey to the belief that that thing is where your talents lie. In reality, you may just be a below-average performer finally approaching average levels.
As you can see, this discrepancy may cause you to make bad choices around opportunities or careers you pursue. You may have found yourself turning to peers asking, “What am I good at?” This isn’t a bad choice to make. Understanding the Dunning-Kruger effect can help you discern when to trust your own abilities, and when to seek advice out from others who may view you more objectively than yourself.
The effect can also cause you to become disappointed when your self-recognized “talents” are not recognized by others. Perhaps you expect an upcoming promotion, and it goes to someone who is surprised to even be considered. It’s not unlikely that your average performance had you thinking you were doing particularly well, while her expertise had her thinking she was average.
Thinking you are better than you are at something can cause you to miss out on opportunities to learn from others, who truly are more skilled or more knowledgeable. Furthermore, thinking you are average at something when you really have great skill can cause you to miss opportunities to teach and spread knowledge to others.
As a society, we therefore miss learning from the best of the best, because their confidence keeps them behind closed doors. At centre stage, all too often, can be people of below-average capabilities.
Unfortunately, those who are the most ignorant—in the bottom 25% of any skill—also overestimate themselves the most. In the context of our democracy, this means our most uninformed citizens are also our most confident ones. Not only are these ignorant people extremely resistant to being taught—since they believe they know the most—they are also guilty of sharing the most information (read: misinformation).
At its core, the Dunning-Kruger effect preys on just that: not a lack of information, but rather an abundance of misinformation. We know when we know nothing, but it is information that is wrong that causes us to think we know everything, and absentmindedly press “share.”
On a national or global level, this effect has dangerous consequences that we’ve already seen in action. In essence, if you are a politician, you may actually benefit from having a more uneducated audience. People who know less about political and world issues are more likely to believe what you say, consider themselves well-informed, go out and vote, and share your views with others. Those in the upper to middle of the pack—somewhat informed about political issues—are more likely to disengage from political discussion and avoid voting, because they don’t believe themselves to be worthy contributors. While experts—the most informed of all—know they have a strong knowledge base, but they avoid educating the public, simply because they don’t realize the rarity of their experience.
Our society’s disease of self-awareness causes ignorant and misinformed people to have the confidence to claim the microphone, while experts and well-informed folks are behind the stage, rolling up the curtains. This phenomenon spreads misinformation and ill-informed views throughout our social worlds, causing us to miss real learning opportunities we could gain from one another.
If too many ill-informed people think they are the best, our society is left with many growing fish in a tiny, shrinking pond.
Why it happens
The Dunning-Kruger effect is a bit of a Catch 22. People who don’t know much about a subject don’t have the knowledge or skills to spot their own mistakes or knowledge gaps. Because of these blind spots, they can’t see where they’re going wrong, and they therefore assume they’re doing great.
On the contrary, people who are at the top of their game in a certain subject area don’t have the ability to notice their specialty, because their work comes so naturally to them that they don’t realize it’s not this way for everyone. The ease with which they pick up these skills or knowledge areas blinds them to the fact that the work is more challenging for others. Rather than underestimating themselves, they overestimate that everyone else’s abilities match their own.
“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”
Although the effect has been found to occur in fields and subject matters as diverse as emotional intelligence, logical reasoning, financial knowledge, political informity, chess, driving, and even medical knowledge, there is recent doubt about its accuracy as a bias of the human brain. Research from 2016, cited in this article, suggests that since computer generated data are also subject to the effects of Dunning-Kruger, it is a computational phenomenon, and thus cannot count as a bias of the human mind.
Why it is important
The Dunning-Kruger effect is important because it makes us aware of our own blind spots and lends us the opportunity to adjust our self-perceptions. Because it is most invisible to those experiencing it, it requires taking a step back to realize that your own self-assessments are largely biased and likely incorrect. If you are making choices based on your own personal knowledge and skills, you have likely not consulted enough reputable information. Also, if you are taking someone else’s word for what they are good at, your information is skewed. Don’t let someone convince you they deserve your business or a promotion from you just because they think they are excelling—they may be wildly ignorant, and grossly overestimating their own performance.
The Dunning-Kruger effect can cause us to listen to confident people before reputable people. This has immeasurable effects on our society, as we accept information and advice from those who will speak first and loudest, before those whose words will hold the most merit.
Also, knowing about the Dunning-Kruger effect may ease your jealousy toward others who seem to “have it all together.” Thinking you know everything is a tell-tale sign you know little.
“I am not young enough to know everything.”
How to avoid it
When it comes to the Dunning-Kruger effect, comparing yourself to others may not be the worst thing you could do—just don’t tell your therapist we said so.
You can avoid being ignorant of your own performance by listening and gaining insight into the performances of others. If your friend who knew only a few Spanish words had asked how the lessons were going for you, your response might clue him into the fact that he’s not all that great at the language after all. Moreover, his poor pronunciation might show you that you actually have an unknown knack for languages.
Simply knowing about the Dunning-Kruger effect can also help you mitigate its effects. Remember that thinking you’re bad at something likely puts you in the middle of the pack, because it means you have enough insight to recognize your own incompetencies. But remember: new levels, new devils.
Also remember that if you think you’re exceptional at something, you likely have a lot of learning to do.
Lastly, you can avoid the Dunning-Kruger effect by being open to feedback, which is, of course, easier said than done. Low performers consistently do not receive criticism well and are chronically disinterested in self-improvement. Rather than brushing off feedback and constructive criticism, attribute the critique to your lack of knowledge and use it mindfully to move yourself forward.
“When arguing with a fool, first make sure the other person isn’t doing the same thing.”
How it all started
The Dunning-Kruger effect was first discovered and written about in 1999, by researchers David Dunning and Justin Kruger at Cornell University.
The researchers spotted how much people overestimated their own abilities in daily life—think of the guy in class who keeps raising his hand to relay his useless ideas—and coined the term “dual burden”. Dual burden was used to describe that these people suffer from two things: ignorance, and ignorance of their own ignorance. The researchers tested random participants on tests of humour, grammar, and logical reasoning. They found that people who ranked in the bottom 25% of any of these test scores tended to predict themselves to be at the top of the pack. When they scored in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd.
On the flip side, people in the top 25% predicted their scores to be slightly lower than they actually were.
Dunning and Kruger conducted a similar study on Cornell students emerging from final exams. They asked the students to predict their own test scores, then followed up when they got their real ones. Their results held up.
Analyses of these results attributed the discrepancies in self-estimation to metacognitive skill (the ability to think about your own thinking). In effect, improving the skills of the participants—on humour, grammar, and logical reasoning—helped them recognize the limitations of their own abilities, and predict their own scores better on subsequent trials.
Example 1 - The corporate workforce
In one study, 42% of employees at a high-tech software engineering company assessed their own performance as being in the top 5%.
Of course, this is mathematically impossible. It is important, however, because it shows the learning and growth opportunities that can pass by in the corporate world. If 42% of your employees think that 95% of the company operates at levels below themselves, that means 42% of employees are not going to take opportunities to learn from those who are actually in the top 5%. They may think they know best, and therefore miss chances to grow and develop their skills.
If the real top 5% don’t have a good grip on how special their talents are, they may miss leadership opportunities like professional development, teaching fellowships, or even day-to-day guidance of newcomers. Self-awareness of employees’ performances can have large impacts on company growth and development.
Example 2 - On the road
Studies have shown that about 80% of people rate themselves as “above-average drivers,” a statistic that is, once again, mathematically impossible.
An inflated sense of ability when driving can cause drivers to make rash decisions and get into accidents. Real novices—those with less than 6 months’ driving experience—are eight times more likely to be involved in an accident. This is not necessarily only because they are ill-equipped as drivers, but also because they are overconfident. Thinking they have more control over the wheel than they actually do causes them to make reckless moves on the road, leading to an alarming number of crashes, and increased insurance rates. If accounting for lack of skill alone, the number of these crashes could decrease significantly.
What it is
The Dunning-Kruger effect is the phenomenon by which those least competent in a certain subject area overestimate their skills the most. It also causes those most competent in a subject area to think less of their own talents.
Why it happens
The phenomenon occurs because those who lack knowledge and skill at something lack the insight they need to know that they could do better. Not knowing much about something causes them to miss their own mistakes, and lose the opportunity to improve.
Moreover, for those at the top, the effect occurs because something comes so easily to them that they don’t realize it is challenging to others, and therefore downplay the extent to which they stand out.
Example 1 - The workforce
At a software engineering company, 42% of employees predicted they would be ranked in the top 5%. The lack of self-awareness at many corporations can have huge effects for companies, when it causes employees to miss learning and teaching opportunities they may take from one another.
Example 2 - Driving
Having less than six months’ experience as a driver makes you eight times more likely to get in an accident. The obvious reason behind this is because you haven’t had much practice. An additional reason is that your own ignorance makes you overconfident, causing you to make reckless decisions and quick turns.
How to avoid it
Avoid the Dunning-Kruger effect by assuming that thinking you are an expert probably means you’re just beginning. Don’t gloat in your ignorance alone, however—seek feedback from others who can help you improve, rather than staying stuck in your inflated self-perceptions. Also, gain insight into others’ abilities to get more realistic data about where you stand, and adjust your perceptions accordingly. And if people are telling you you’re an expert, listen.
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