Why Stupid People Think They Are Smart (The Dunning-Kruger Effect)

August 20, 2019 Phantasm Darkstar 0 Comment(s)

We all know that one person who speaks as if they know everything, or so much at least--or someone who speaks as if he or she is a veteran yet has so little experience. This psychological bias where someone believes himself to be smarter and more competent than they actually are is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. (Above photo by photoschmidt/Shutterstock).

What is the Dunning-Kruger Effect?

The theory of the Dunning Kruger Effect was developed by David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University in their 1999 study, "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments". It is a type of cognitive bias in which people believe that they are smarter and more capable than they really are. Essentially, low ability people do not possess the skills needed to recognize their own incompetence. The combination of poor self-awareness and low cognitive ability leads them to overestimate their own capabilities.

The term lends a scientific name and explanation to a problem that many people immediately recognize—that fools are blind to their own foolishness. As Charles Darwin wrote in his book The Descent of Man, "Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge." Or in slang, the person is in mount stupid. According to Urban Dictionary, Mount Stupid is the place where you have enough knowledge of a subject to be vocal about it, without the wisdom to gather the full facts or read around the topic. 

If you have dealt with someone who is overconfident of their knowledge and skills but what you see is otherwise, then you have seen the Dunning-Kruger Effect in action.

Unfortunately, from the more than 10,000 people who’ve taken the online quiz “How Do You React To Constructive Criticism?” only 39% of employees handle constructive criticism by systematically dissecting every step leading up to the thing they just got criticized for. They don’t freak out or fight the feedback, instead, they want to understand and correct the underlying issues. Now, it’s not guaranteed that the other 61% are ensconced in Dunning-Kruger, but it’s worth being concerned that they may receive feedback with quite a resistance.

The irony of the Dunning-Kruger Effect is that, Professor Dunning notes, “the knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task—and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at that task.” Or as how I would try to explain it: the more you know, the more that you will realize that there is so much more that you need to explore and understand. Thus, it humbles you and urges you to seek more knowledge that would lead you to be better at a certain expertise. 

How did Dunning and Kruger test the hypothesis and what are their findings? 

Participants of the study underwent tests of humor, logic, science, and grammar. In the study for humor, for example, Dunning and Kruger asked their participants to rate how funny different jokes were. Some of the participants were exceptionally poor at determining what other people would find funny—yet these same subjects described themselves as excellent judges of humor. People who scored in the lowest percentiles on tests of grammar, humor, and logic also tended to dramatically overestimate how well they had performed (their actual test scores placed them in the 12th percentile, but they estimated that their performance placed them in the 62nd percentile).

Incompetent people, the researchers found, are not only poor performers, but they are also unable to accurately assess and recognize the quality of their own work. This is the reason why students who earn failing scores on exams sometimes feel that they deserved a much higher score. They overestimate their own knowledge and ability and are incapable of seeing the poorness of their performance.

How the Dunning Kruger Effect can be Dangerous

While it can be quite funny to see someone make a fool of themselves, the Dunning Kruger effect can actually be dangerous. For example, doctors have found that elderly people refuse to exercise to relieve pain, even though this is the most effective method of pain treatment. This is because they mistakenly believe that the physical discomfort they feel after exercising is a sign that they have made the condition worse.

In an even more serious example, mothers in India sometimes withhold water from infants suffering from diarrhea because they believe too much water is what is causing the condition.

In economic situations, the repercussions of the bias are also serious. Studies have suggested that the 2008 meltdown was caused by overconfident financiers and consumers who weren’t as financially literate as they thought they were.

Who Is Affected by the Dunning-Kruger Effect?

So who is affected by the Dunning-Kruger effect? Unfortunately, we all are. This is because no matter how informed or experienced we are, everyone has areas in which they are uninformed and incompetent. You might be smart and skilled in many areas, but no one is an expert at everything.

The reality is that everyone is susceptible to this phenomenon, and in fact, most of us probably experience it with surprising regularity. People who are genuine experts in one area may mistakenly believe that their intelligence and knowledge carry over into other areas in which they are less familiar. A brilliant scientist, for example, might be a very poor writer. In order for the scientist to recognize his own lack of skill, he needs to possess a good working knowledge of things such as grammar and composition. Because those are lacking, the scientist in this example also lacks the ability to recognize his own poor performance.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is not synonymous with low IQ. As awareness of the term has increased, its misapplication as a synonym for "stupid" has also grown. It is, after all, easy to judge others and believe that such things simply do not apply to you.

So if the incompetent tend to think they are experts, what do genuine experts think of their own abilities? Dunning and Kruger found that those at the high end of the competence spectrum did hold more realistic views of their own knowledge and capabilities. However, these experts actually tended to underestimate their own abilities relative to how others did.

Essentially, these top-scoring individuals know that they are better than the average, but they are not convinced of just how superior their performance is compared to others. The problem, in this case, is not that experts don't know how well-informed they are; it's that they tend to believe that everyone else is knowledgeable as well.

How can we overcome the Dunning-Kruger Effect?

So is there anything that can minimize this phenomenon? Is there a point at which the incompetent actually recognize their own ineptitude? "We are all engines of misbelief," Dunning has suggested. While we are all prone to experiencing the Dunning-Kruger effect, learning more about how the mind works and the mistakes we are all susceptible to might be one step toward correcting such patterns.

Dunning and Kruger suggest that as experience with a subject increase, confidence typically declines to more realistic levels. As people learn more about the topic of interest, they begin to recognize their own lack of knowledge and ability. Then as people gain more information and actually become experts on a topic, their confidence levels begin to improve once again.

So what can you do to gain a more realistic assessment of your own abilities in a particular area if you are not sure you can trust your own self-assessment?

Keep learning and practicing. Instead of assuming you know all there is to know about a subject, keep digging deeper. Once you gain greater knowledge of a topic, the more likely you are to recognize how much there is still to learn. This can combat the tendency to assume you’re an expert, even if you're not.

Ask other people how you're doing. Another effective strategy involves asking others for constructive criticism. While it can sometimes be difficult to hear, such feedback can provide valuable insights into how others perceive your abilities.

Question what you know. Even as you learn more and get feedback, it can be easy to only pay attention to things that confirm what you think you already know. This is an example of another type of psychological bias known as the confirmation bias. In order to minimize this tendency, keep challenging your beliefs and expectations. Seek out information that challenges your ideas.


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