The Dunning-Kruger effect: When competence impacts on self-awareness.

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Have you ever come across someone who clearly didn’t know what they were talking about but acted as if they were an expert? It can be frustrating, can’t it? I discovered the Dunning-Kruger effect years ago and it has helped me to keep my cool on such occasions.

Dunning and Kruger, two American psychologists, conducted a series of experiments exploring the issues of competence and self-awareness which led them to the following conclusions:

  • People with low levels of competence in an area tend to over-estimate their abilities in that area. This is, at least in part, due to the fact that their lack of competence actually hampers them from making an accurate assessment of their level of ability.
  • Conversely, people with high levels of competence in an area tend to underestimate their abilities.

You were probably already aware of one aspect of the Dunning-Kruger effect, even if you didn’t know it by name.  Adages such as “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing” or “Empty vessels make most noise” allude to the first part of their conclusion. What I find interesting is the second part; that people with high competence tend to underestimate their ability. Whilst people with low competence in a particular area don’t know enough to know that there is lots that they don’t know and therefore over-estimate their abilities, people with high competence know enough to know there is lots they don’t know and therefore consider that they know less than they actually do. Follow me?

A friend recounted to me earlier this week how she went into some of her exams in her undergraduate degree exuding calm and confidence, not because she was well prepared but rather because she actually hadn’t studied enough to realise how much she didn’t know about the topic. Meanwhile she observed that some of her very diligent classmates who had done much more study were much more stressed than she was. On reflection she recognises that it was probably partly due to the fact that they were aware that there was lots that they still didn’t know while she was comfortable in blissful ignorance!

Is there anything that can help people become more accurate in their self-assessment? Dunning and Kruger found that if people of low competence (who have an overly optimistic view of their abilities) are provided with appropriate education and feedback they become more realistic about their abilities. Once they understand a bit more about a topic, people are better placed to realise how little they know. And for the highly competent people? Once they gain some insight into how little the “incompetent” people know (for example by seeing themselves bench-marked against their less competent counterparts), they become more realistic about their own abilities. Feedback in both situations is the key to resolving the mistaken beliefs.

I mentioned earlier that this concept has helped me to keep my cool. How so? Well, I have frequent experiences of people who have little knowledge of a topic telling me how I should do things, be it in my work or parenting or just life in general. Before I understood the Dunning-Kruger effect this annoyed me if it was clear that someone didn’t have much understanding of the topic about which they were talking. Now I realise that it may be that they don’t know enough to know that they don’t know enough and they have simply overestimated their abilities!

 Reflection time

This weeks reflection is short and sweet.

Do you ever meet people who have overestimated their abilities? How do you react? Are there ways that you can help them to gain more insight? If there are, this will help them gain a better understanding of their abilities.

Conversely, do you ever meet people who are highly competent who underestimate their abilities? How do you react? Are there ways that you can help them to gain more insight? If there are, this will help them gain a better understanding of their abilities.

How about you? Are there areas where you are highly competent where you underestimate your own abilities? How could you gain a more accurate picture of your abilities?

And the last question, which is begging to be asked is this: are there areas where you over-estimate your abilities? But such a question is pointless. The very fact that you have over-estimated your ability will prevent you from seeing the error of your ways. As Dunning and Kruger put it, “people who are unskilled … suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.”  So, if you have over-estimated your abilities, let’s hope someone you know reads this blog-post and will help you out!

4 thoughts on “The Dunning-Kruger effect: When competence impacts on self-awareness.”

  1. Funny how easy it is to see incompetence in others while being oblivious to your own failings. We haven’t got any better since biblical times. “Why beholdest you the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”
    Happy Easter.

  2. Caitriona, this is EXACTLY what I needed to read right now. I struggle with this on a daily basis in my workplace and find it incredibly challenging and at times demotivating.
    I am going to read more about the Dunning-Kruger effect to better inform myself, but putting a name to this ‘phenomenon’ may help me cope! Thanks for the insight.

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