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.

Don’t die on that hill. (Chart: Wikimedia)

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.

In 2000, Dunning and Kruger “won” the Ig Nobel Prize in Psychology. In 2017, The Incompetence Opera premiered at the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony; it included “The Dunning-Kruger Song”.

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

More on the “Effect” here.

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27 Comments 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?

  16. There’s also a corollary … the smart people who always underestimate themselves. They (we, on too many occasions) assume that since it’s so easy for them, it must be easy for everyone else too.

    I came up with a different working definition for IQ. It’s nothing but the marks on the outside of a measuring cup. It says nothing about what, if anything, gets put in it. It doesn’t take many Mensa meetings to realize that IQ doesn’t mean “smart” in useful terms.

    Not always, anyway! I’ve said something similar before: just because they’re smart doesn’t mean they have a lick of common sense. And that can certainly be true even if they are well educated. -rc

    • My mother used to say that her father-in-law had all the education (a doctorate in chemistry by age 23) and her father (who only made it to eighth grade before having to work to support the family due to his father’s alcoholism) had all the common sense.

    • While there may be no cure for the DK Effect (otherwise known as Cranial-Rectal Insertion) there is the possibility of management of the effect using Cranial-Rectal Extraction, a technique I highly recommend, and use myself on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis ; ) Two books that have been very helpful in understanding the the need for this technique are On Being Certain by Robert A. Burton M.D. and The Knowledge Illusion by Steven Sloman/Phillip Fernbach. If you do read these books, I’m sure you’ll begin to recognize the source of those seemingly random popping sounds you may have heard, (some of them even in your immediate vicinity?) : )

  17. I often wondered at my competence before I retired from nursing. Being “called out” for little, insignificant things on the job, while at the same time not being recognized for the overall accomplishment of a job well done, also called into question my overall competence.

    Big Bummer on both sides.

    Bosses, giving your workers complements during the work day may actually increase your workers productivity.

    GOOD bosses know that, and do it. That yours didn’t calls into question their overall competence. -rc

  18. People who really do suffer from impostor syndrome hit the valley of despair and do not have nearly that upward curve….

    Yep, it takes actual learning to climb the Slope of Enlightenment. -rc

    • No, it’s more that they gain competence without increasing confidence.

      Ah, I didn’t parse your comment correctly. That’s where a good boss comes in, with encouragement and mentorship. -rc

  19. Back in high school I got a little ahead of myself when I had just learned some soldering techniques in gold and silversmithing. I executed some joints so perfect that they were virtually invisible. Soon after I realized that I had actually learned just enough to be dangerous when I attempted a repair that had a hollow piece in it. It blew up like popcorn. It may be called the Dunning-Krueger effect now, but I always called it knowing just enough to be dangerous. Considering some of the jobs I’ve had, that has been quite literal.

  20. The first rule of Dunning-Kruger Club is: if you don’t worry that you might have Dunning-Kruger, you have Dunning-Kruger.

    Second rule of Dunning-Kruger Club: we all have, have had, or will have Dunning-Kruger, usually all three at once, so just deal with it.

    Third rule of Dunning-Kruger Club: accepting that you have or are likely to have or get Dunning-Kruger is your best bet for dealing with it.

    “If you have Dunning-Kruger, admitting it is the first step toward a cure.” -rc

  21. During the early years of my first “real” job (in my chosen field), I had a conversation with a boss regarding this very topic. Regarding people who have little competence, he said to me “They don’t know how much they don’t know.” So my boss, Charlie, should have received the Ig Nobel Prize in Psychology 20 years before Dunning and Kruger.

    Too bad your boss didn’t know that in order for it to be considered research, you have to publish! -rc


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