The Dunning Kruger effect

Most everyone can recall a time when they’ve encountered someone unabashedly declaring they are correct and everyone else’s contradictory opinion is uninformed and simply wrong. At times it may seem evident that this person doesn’t know what they are talking about, however, they appear to be blissfully unaware of their ignorance. 

In psychology, this phenomenon is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, aptly named after the two research social psychologists, Dr. David Dunning and Dr. Justin Kruger, who first described it in their paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, volume 77 in 1999. 

Dunning and Kruger argue that when people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it. Instead, they are left with the mistaken impression that they are doing just fine.

As Miller (1993) perceptively observed: “It is one of the essential features of such incompetence that the person so afflicted is incapable of knowing that he is incompetent. To have such knowledge would already be to remedy a good portion of the offense.

And as Charles Darwin (1871) sagely noted over a century ago: “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge“.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

In essence, Dunning and Kruger argue that the skills that engender competence in a particular domain are often the very same skills necessary to evaluate competence in that domain—one’s own or anyone else’s.

Because of this, incompetent individuals lack what cognitive psychologists variously term metacognition, metamemory, metacomprehension, or self-monitoring skills. These terms refer to the ability to know how well one is performing, when one is likely to be accurate in judgment, and when one is likely to be in error.
For example, consider the ability to write grammatical English. The skills that enable one to construct a grammatical sentence are the same skills necessary to recognize a grammatical sentence, and thus are the same skills necessary to determine if a grammatical mistake has been made.

Imperfect self-assessment

Dunning and Kruger focus on the metacognitive skills of the incompetent to explain, in part, the fact that people seem to be so imperfect in appraising themselves and their abilities. Perhaps the best illustration of this tendency is the “above-average effect“, or the tendency of the average person to believe he or she is above average, a result that defies the logic of descriptive statistics.

For example:

  • high school students tend to see themselves as having more ability in leadership, getting along with others, and written expression than their peers,
  • business managers view themselves as more able than the typical manager,
  • football players see themselves as more savvy in “football sense” than their teammates.
Dilbert on the Dunning Kruger effect

Competence and metacognitive skils

Several lines of research are consistent with the notion that incompetent individuals lack the metacognitive skills necessary for accurate self-assessment. In chess, novices are less calibrated than experts about how many times they need to see a given chessboard position before they are able to reproduce it correctly. In physics, novices are less accurate than experts in judging the difficulty of physics problems.

Some examples:

  • Socially incompetent boys are largely unaware of their lack of social graces (a similar result was found involving college students).
  • Students doing poorly on tests less accurately predict which questions they will get right than do students doing well.
  • Unskilled readers are less able to assess their text comprehension than are more skilled readers.
  • Drivers involved in accidents or flunking a driving exam predict their performance on a reaction test less accurately than do more accomplished and experienced drivers.

Perceived ability as a function of actual test performance

Conclusion

People tend to hold overly optimistic and miscalibrated views about themselves. Dunning and Kruger propose that those with limited knowledge in a domain suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach mistaken conclusions and make regrettable errors, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.

Dunning’s follow-up research showed the poorest performers were the least likely to accept criticism or show interest in self improvement. Pointing out the facts, making corrections, or telling them they’re wrong doesn’t usually get anywhere constructive.

Improving a person’s skills and increasing their ability to tell fact from fiction does help them begin to recognize the limits of their own abilities.

I once worked with a woman who argued with the entire office that the lyrics to Feliz Navidad are “feliz la-dee-da”. We couldn’t convince her otherwise. (Dr. Christine Bradstreet in a blog called “I came face to face with the Dunning Kruger effect”)

We can just laugh it off as a silly quirk when it’s a song lyric, but what about when it’s your surgeon, your boss, your pilot, or your president?

It explains why people who know nothing about science can be so certain that climate change doesn’t exist. It explains why more than 90% of the faculty at the University of Nebraska rated themselves as above average. It explains why we all think we’re better drivers than everyone else out there.

Analysis of a recent related study

In the recent study, researchers from Zayed University in Abu Dhabi and Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania, examined how the Dunning-Kruger effect, or people’s overestimation of their skills, can influence intuitive thinking. 

The term “intuition” is not universally defined, with different disciplines using the word in varying ways. Generally, in psychology, intuition relates to using heuristic cues or pattern recognition to make decisions or possess knowledge without analytical thinking or apparent deliberation. 

A wealth of research has demonstrated that intuition is a powerful and scientifically backed skill that can help people make faster and more accurate decisions. This innate ability for unconscious wisdom stems from the fact that the human mind is wired for pattern recognition. 

Cognitive reflection test (CRT)

To test the Dunning-Kruger effect on intuitive thinking, researchers used the “cognitive reflection test” (CRT) developed by Yale professor Dr. Shane Frederick

The CRT is used to measure a person’s ability to override an incorrect intuitive response and engage in analytical thinking to find a correct answer. Success on the test depends on a person’s ability and willingness to overcome their initial intuitive response. 

A frequently cited problem on the CRT is the question: “A bat and ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat cost $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” The intuitive answer that readily comes to mind is 10 cents, which is incorrect. The correct answer is 5 cents ($0.05 ball + $1.05 bat = $1.10 total). To arrive at the correct answer, one must reject their initial “gut” response and engage in deliberative, analytical reasoning. 

CRT study

In the study, 178 female undergraduate students from Zayed University, Abu Dhabi, were asked to evaluate their performance after completing a seven-question cognitive reflection test. Participants were also asked to complete a self-reporting “faith in intuition” survey to measure their reliance on intuitive decision-making.

After analyzing the results, researchers found that participants with the most errors on the CRT miscalibrated their actual performance to a much higher degree than those who had fewer incorrect responses. “Specifically, on a test that was out of seven points, low performers overestimated their CRT score by 4.26, which high-performers miscalibrated by just 1”, noted researchers. 

They concluded the results suggest that low-performers were either less likely to initiate analytical thinking to verify their intuitive responses, or the output generated by analytical processes failed to provide convincing evidence for them to overturn their intuitive reaction.

Researchers also found that participants who perceived themselves as more intuitive were the ones who had the most significant discrepancy in estimated vs. actual scores on the CRT. These results suggest that people who enjoy and trust intuition are less likely to recognize when they make a mistake, making them prone to overestimate their performance. 

Double burden

This is a double burden that is unfortunately very common”, explained Dr. Couchman. “People who consider themselves to be more intuitive probably notice and remember the times when their intuition worked, and forget when it was incorrect. That results in a deficit in knowledge, but also boosts their confidence in the incorrect process. Both of those problems work together to make it more likely they will make errors in the future.”

Cure for the Dunning Kruger effect

There’s a cure for the effect, already known to the Greek philosopher Socrates:

“The only true wisdom is to know you know nothing.”

Socrates

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