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

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!

Are you Positive?

30th March 2017

I have been very pleasantly surprised by the reaction to my first blog-post last week. Thousands of people have viewed it. Lots of people have contacted me, sharing similar thoughts and experiences. It has prompted numerous people to take action in areas in which they have been procrastinating. It has had a far more positive effect on others, and on me, than I could have imagined.

This prompts me to reflect on a concept that has long fascinated me… positive thinking. For two years, I let negative thinking drive my behaviour, fearful of starting a blog. I sent ripples of self-doubt out into the universe, which ricocheted back, reinforcing my thoughts and creating a vicious cycle of self-doubt. Once I managed to break free of this cycle and think positively, once I took a very deep breath and pressed “post now” on my blog, I turned negative thought into positive action. As I broadcast my first tentative ripple of positivity, which replaced previous wavelengths of negativity, it bounced back with reciprocated positivity, instigating a new, virtuous cycle. The interactions that I have had with readers in the past week have been wonderful, so much so that I regret not starting to blog two years ago when I first thought of it. I am so glad I took that first, scary step last week towards something I wanted to do. The response has encouraged me to continue being brave.

Interestingly, interwoven through the past weeks’ positive interactions have been threads of negativity. Words of caution from well-meaning friends and family have reverberated as echoes of my own previous negative thoughts. Now that I’ve stepped off a platform of negativity and onto the platform of positive thinking (described as the “Green Platform” by Declan Coyle) I can objectively see and hear the negativity and I can deal with it calmly. Now I observe it and respond positively, in an effort to dilute someone else’s negativity so that their sentiments bounce back to them in a slightly more positive way.  What sort of things do I mean?  Let me give you some examples…

Now that you’ve started to blog, you need to worry about identity theft” – My response: No more than I did before. There is already lots of my writing on the internet in the guise of my professional role.

“You need to be careful because the internet doesn’t forget… you can’t take what you say back” – My response: I WANT to leave an indelible mark on this world.  That’s something I welcome, not fear.  I’m happy to stand over everything I say and I welcome being held to account for it.  We need more of that in the world in my opinion.

“You could make yourself vulnerable” My Response: I know. That’s vulnerability of my own choosing.  Nobody is exploiting me here. I’m an adult, capable of deciding the level of exposure with which I can cope.  Have a look at Brené Brown’s work. Vulnerability isn’t bad. I would argue that we need more of that in the world too.

“You shouldn’t commit to writing a weekly blog. It will be too stressful and you’ll run out of things to say”. My response: Let’s see!

None of these comments were intended to be negative. They were offered as words of caution, uttered with the intention of keeping me safe. They were offered with good intention.  They are based in fear…. fear for my well-being… and I feel very lucky to have people who care for me in this way. This does, however, lead us to the crux of this weeks’ article. Many of us have been so conditioned to be cautious and to consider the pitfalls of life that we inadvertently and unconsciously stem the flow of positivity, sometimes in ourselves and sometimes in others. The words which were offered to me as friendly advice over the past week sometimes reflected a negative view of the world. They are reflections of the thoughts and feelings that previously prevented me from overcoming my own fears and which kept me stuck for two years.

I am not a naturally positive person. Whether by nature, nurture or other unknown forces, I have always tended towards quite a negative outlook. What’s more, this approach has worked well for me. It was particularly useful in my work as a pharmacist, where so much depends on identifying and managing risk. In pharmacy, thinking of all the things that could possibly go wrong is, ironically, a positive quality.  There isn’t much room for optimism. It has been proven that optimism is a wonderful quality if you’re a gambler and that it can be quite the hindrance if you are working in areas of quality or risk management.  The more pessimistic you are, the better you are likely to be at your job if you are in the business of managing quality or risk. So negativity has served me quite well professionally.  Personally too, a leaning towards negativity has always led me to consider the worst possible outcomes to situations and has, no doubt, led me to make some conservative and safe choices. Now, however, I choose positivity!

Too often, positive people are viewed as naive, overly optimistic people who need to be reminded of the risks, of which they seem oblivious. I am guilty of this myself. I recently underestimated a wonderfully positive work colleague who I presumed couldn’t see the risks around her. I misunderstood her positive outlook and took it upon myself to point out risks that I believed she couldn’t see. Fortunately she was incredibly patient with me and I have since learnt the error of my ways. It turns out that she does see the risks and the negativity around her but she chooses to project positivity in the face of it all.  She’s not naive….she’s wise and I aspire to being like her.

The trick, I find, to making negativity work for me is to confine it to the areas where it is helpful, such as risk reduction and risk management, and to counter-balance it with positivity in the rest of my life (I’m unintentionally back to the concept of balance, a theme of my first post). Like a battery, you need both positive and negative charges to work effectively. Achieving balance sounds easier than it is. Sadly, when one is well trained to identify and manage risk, it can be easy to slip into a somewhat negative outlook in other areas of life too.  I often remind pharmacists that “perfection is needed in dispensing but not in life”. I think it’s important to warn this highly educated and intelligent group of people not to be too hard on themselves.

Before I leave you with your reflection prompt, let me make one final, related, observation about the power of language. As George Lakoff nicely puts it in “Don’t Think of an Elephant”, language carries and evokes ideas.  I first came cross this idea in parenting where it was presented as “positive framing”. The idea is that rather than speaking about negative, unwanted behaviour, parents are encouraged to describe the positive behaviour that they would like to see from their children. For example, rather than say “don’t be naughty” parents are encouraged to say “lets see if you can show me your good behaviour”. Rather than foretelling catastrophe, for example “Don’t run out on the road.. you’ll get knocked down!”, parents are encouraged to instead focus on the actions that are desired, for example “Stay here beside me where you will be safe”. Lakoff describes an exercise that he carries out with cognitive science students where he directs them as follows; “Don’t think of an elephant”. He claims that he’s never found a student who is able to do this. As he puts it, “every word evokes a frame, which can be an image or other kind of knowledge. The word is defined relative to the frame. When we negate the frame, we evoke the frame.”  What a powerful idea. When you negate the frame (“don’t think of”), we evoke the frame (“an elephant”). The same happens with negative thoughts! And so we can unintentionally evoke negativity whilst intending to do quite the opposite.

Reflection time.


As your reflection exercise this week think about the ripples that you are creating in the world.  Are they ones of caution, fear or negativity? Or are they positive, optimistic and brave? Is it possible that your learnt behaviours, particularly in the areas of language, cause you to send unconscious, unintended negative vibes out into the world? Are you stopping yourself? Or more worryingly, are you stopping others? If so, start honing the habit of re-framing your negative thoughts or language. You never know, you might find your ripples bouncing back to you in an unexpected way.

What’s Stopping You?

24th March 2017

For the past two years, I have been thinking about setting up a blog. I am passionate about the power of reflection and I want to write regular, short pieces that prompt useful reflection for myself, which might be of interest, or use, to others. Last year, I gave myself a deadline … to start writing a blog before I was 40 years old. Today, on the day of my 40th birthday, time is running out!  I was born in the evening, so I reckon that as long as I publish my first blog before this evening, I can claim that I met my goal!  This time yesterday I didn’t have a website, I had no clue about blogging and I hadn’t written a thing.  This is truly a dash to the finish line!

Why have I procrastinated for so long? Writing is something I enjoy doing. Blogging interests me. This is a self-identified goal. So why on earth have I harbored this idea for two years, doing nothing about it whilst berating myself for not getting started? The idea has squatted in my brain, occupying valuable real estate without paying its way….and I let it. Excuses ebbed and flowed. I don’t have enough time was a common one. And yet it always came back to one recurring thought… I want to do it … and yet I don’t. And there’s my answer. I wanted to start blogging and at the same time, I didn’t.  Even though I have lots of reasons for wanting to blog, I have as many, and more, for not wanting to blog. Who am I to start a blog? Will people laugh at me? How do I even go about it? Who would want to hear about my ideas anyway? Who do I think I am? Am I able?….. and the self-doubt floods through. It’s called cognitive dissonance… the discomfort experienced when we are stuck between two ideas, of wanting to do something and yet, at the same time, not wanting to do it. There is the weight of desire on one side of the scales, and the weight of resistance on the other. It’s very difficult to make progress if the weight of resistance exceeds the weight of desire.

So what can you do? Put simply, you must tip the scales in your favour. You must either make the reasons for doing what you want to do so compelling that you simply have to act or, alternatively, reduce the doubts and fears to a level that make it possible to move forward. For me, two things happened yesterday that finally tipped the scales in my favour. Firstly, it dawned on me that I was almost out of time. I had set myself a deadline to do this … my 40th birthday. If I didn’t write a blog by the time I turned 40, I would have failed to meet my own deadline. And I hate failing. So that certainly helped me. In general, self-imposed deadlines work well for me. But, in this case it wasn’t enough to propel me into action. I still didn’t know HOW to do what I wanted. That’s when the second thing happened. Over the course of a birthday lunch with my work-colleagues (Thanks team!) I mentioned my desire to start blogging, secretly glum about the fact that it looked like I was going to miss my target. Instantly, Frank, a colleague, started moving the idea forward for me. He prompted me to think about website domain names I might like and promised to set it up for me so that I could start my blogging journey on my 40th birthday! Yesterday evening I found, to my surprise, that was available as a domain name. Frank set me up with WordPress, and here I am! Frank took lots of weight off the “resistance” side of the scales for me, by sorting out the scary technical stuff. That allowed me, finally, to get started.


Reflection time.


So, how about you? Are there things you want to do, and could do, but don’t? Are there times when you feel “stuck” between desire and resistance? Do you want to but, at the same time, don’t want to do something? If so, it might be useful to take some time to reflect on what’s going on.

Firstly, imagine an old-fashioned weighing scales and think about where the balance of weight currently lies. Does it lie on the side of desire or resistance? If you haven’t yet started doing what it is you want to do, it’s likely that the scales are currently tipped in favour of resistance.

Next, take time to think more deeply about the weight of your desire. Why do you want to do this thing? Writing your thoughts out will help the reflective process. Make a note of all the reasons you have for wanting to make this happen and then work through them one by one. Which reasons are most important to you? Are they compelling? How can you make each reason more compelling? What would be a good motivator for you? How can you increase the weight of desire? Who or what could help you make this happen?

Next, think more deeply about the weight of your resistance. What’s stopping you? Again, writing your thoughts out will help the reflective process. Make a note of all the things that make this difficult and then work through them one by one.  What are the biggest barriers? How can they be overcome, or at least made smaller? Who or what could help you? How can you reduce the weight of resistance?

And finally, turn this reflection into action which will help you prosper.  Reflect on what you have written. Can you increase the weight of desire about this goal sufficiently to propel you into action? Is there more work that you need to do to work through the barriers? Or are you still stuck? If so, can you make peace with yourself that there are legitimate reasons for not making progress? Can you revisit your aims and change them so they are more achievable? Or is it actually worth progressing at all? Sometimes the bravest thing is to do nothing. Sometimes we want to do something simply because we feel we should, but in truth we’re not that motivated by it. If that’s the case, get rid of the squatters in your brain. Free the space up to think about something you do care about and progress that instead so that you can prosper.

As for me?  Let’s see how long it takes to to produce a second article!