Are You Sure?

If a friend sent you to this page, they may be trying to tell you something. If you found it by yourself, consider that a point in your favor. This article appeared in This is True’s 23 January 2000 issue:

Even Your Best Friends Won’t Tell You

Sure there are a lot of incompetent people around. The problem is, they don’t know it, says Dr. David A. Dunning, a psychology professor at New York’s Cornell University, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. He says that the reason they don’t know is that the skills people need to recognize incompetence are the same skills they need to be competent in the first place. Thus the incompetent often end up “grossly overestimating” their own competency, even when they’re making a mess of things. At the same time, very competent people tend to underestimate their abilities. Dunning notes such studies create a unique danger for the researchers. “I began to think that there were probably lots of things that I was bad at and I didn’t know it,” he said. (New York Times) …If you want to know what they are, just ask your wife.

Dr. David Dunning

The phenomenon is now better known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect (to provide credit to Dunning’s Cornell co-researcher, Justin Kruger), and Dr. Kruger is a Professor of Social Psychology at the New York University Stern School of Business.

More on the “Effect” here.

Dunning is now a Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan.

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17 thoughts on “Are You Sure?

  1. Reminds me of one of my favorite quotes:

    “The trouble with most folks isn’t so much their ignorance, as knowing so many things that ain’t so.” –Josh Billings

  2. Unfortunately the D-K effect has been hijacked by people evidently suffering from it, who think they can close off an argument by shouting “D-K effect!” as if internet-text-based telediagnosis were a reality 😉

  3. It sounds like The Peter Principle, where someone is promoted well above their level of competence so they can’t TRULY screw anything up… Or the US Government.

  4. I just saw a Facebook post last week, “If you are dead, you don’t know you are dead. So it’s only bad for the people around you. Same with stupidity.”

  5. I don’t think it wise to comment on the tag.

    But is it wise to comment that you’re not commenting on the tag? -rc

  6. Finally! An answer! I followed the links and read more about the D-K effect, and it explains my situation perfectly.

    My mother always made my sister and me feel as if we were just one step above the village idiot. As a result, I tend to become very impatient with people who don’t find things as easy to do as I do. I’ve always referred to my condition as an Inferiority Complex on Steroids. “If anybody as dumb as I am can get this, what’s the matter with you?”

    It would seem my mother was a carrier of the dreaded DKE. Thanks!

    Glad to shed light. -rc

  7. For Dani, from Bradshaw, MD: It does you no good to lose patience with “THEM” as they won’t understand anyway, and become restive and their acuity falls. I simply treat them as if they are just a little slow. It IS frustrating always having to fill in the blanks…

  8. Dunning deserves credit for recognizing the pot/kettle nature of this observation. Each of us is potentially guilty of the same arbitrary assumption that we’re right and the other person is either too stupid, or too brainwashed, to understand. Constantly questioning facts, assumptions, beliefs and attitudes consumes mental and cognitive energy, and can inhibit action. We’re designed to operate on a world model which allows us to react without conscious thought or continuous decision making; life is a lot more strenuous without certitude.

    Unfortunately, mythology is also a methodology for social coherence, and many of the things we know that just ain’t so are taught in schools, as part of a process which, in general terms, is designed to turn out new citizens who think the same as their parents, and won’t upset the status quo.

  9. Yes, “Just because you don’t know the answer doesn’t mean that someone else does.” I find that comforting.

  10. The more you put into a brain, the more it will hold. However, when a person prohibits cognitive input and shuts off the information flow going in, their reasoning processes fill in the blanks. The resulting output is certainty of concepts that are at best assumptions. Conspiracy theorists have adhered to this principle for hundreds of years. Interestingly, even they seldom agree.

    Fortunately, as my law enforcement pals keep reminding me, stupidity is still legal. Fear the day it is not.

  11. I worked as an English-Spanish interpreter for many years and I used to say about interpreter wannabes that the only thing worse than “interpreters” who don’t understant English (or any other second language for that matter) is “interpreters” who THINK they understand it! I’ve seen it: they’ll enthusiastically spit out whatever comes up in their silly minds and the person they interpret for won’t have a clue they’re actually being completely misinterpreted!

  12. I also believe the effect to be stronger in educated individuals. I do IT at Hebrew University, and let me tell you there’s no one as incompetent with computers as educated technophobes. The biggest problems come up when they try solving problems on their own….

  13. I propose the Morrison Principle: People who have verified the Peter Principle by their position should simply be demoted to their first level of competence. I know, I KNOW! It ain’t gonna happen but one can hope.

  14. I remember reading about the announcement of the D-K Effect in my local paper when I was 13 and thinking, “This is just stating the glaringly obvious”. The less you know, the more you think you do. You’re ignorant of being ignorant. In fancier terms, how much you think you know is inversely proportional to how much you actually know.

  15. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone could be intelligent for one day, just so they know what they’re missing?

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