Why do ignoramuses think they are experts? The Dunning-Kruger Effect

Why do ignoramuses think they are experts? The Dunning-Kruger Effect

“He who knows does not speak, he who speaks does not know” – with this succinct phrase the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu formulated back in the fifth century B.C. what became known as the “Dunning-Krueger Effect” at the end of the last millennium. Although this effect is often attributed exclusively to incompetent people, each of us encounters it.

In 1999, two American social psychologists, Justin Krueger and David Dunning, hypothesized that cognitive bias (unfounded beliefs) causes people to overestimate their knowledge or abilities, especially in areas in which they have very little experience. This hypothesis is called the “Dunning-Krueger Effect” and below we will explain what it is in simple terms, give illustrative examples, and tell you how to recognize and overcome this effect.

What is the Dunning-Kruger effect?

In psychology, the Dunning-Kruger effect is defined as metacognitive distortion, or in simple terms, a lack of awareness of a lack of knowledge in an area that makes a person feel more competent at something than they really are. In other words, if we do not know something, it is difficult for us to understand how strong our lack of knowledge is in an area.

When we think we can handle a task easily, but it ends up taking much longer and harder than expected, this is the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Here is a another clear example of the Dunning-Kruger effect:

Let’s imagine that you don’t have the faintest idea how houses are built, and you’ve never done it. In this situation, you won’t be able to determine what steps to take. And only if you have at least a general idea of pouring the foundation, building the walls, and running the plumbing will you be able to determine exactly what you don’t know and what gaps need to be filled.

The Dunning-Kruger effect kicks in at the very moment when an ignorant person begins to think he knows absolutely everything, or when a really smart person thinks he is ignorant.

Why do ignoramuses think they are experts? The Dunning-Kruger Effect

The emergence of the Dunning-Kruger principle was preceded by similar observations of many past philosophers, from Socrates (“I know that I know nothing”) to Confucius (“True knowledge is to know the limits of one’s ignorance”).

However, American psychologists have gone even further in their thinking and have suggested that the less knowledge we have in a particular area, the greater the chance that we will unconsciously consider ourselves to be experts in it. And the key word here is unconsciously, because when we fall under the Dunning-Kruger effect, we do not realize that this has happened.

How was the research conducted?

To test their hypothesis, Dunning and Kruger conducted a series of experiments involving Cornell University psychology students. Thus, in one of the studies students were tested on their knowledge of American Standard Written English (ASWE), and then independently assessed their knowledge of grammar.

The results revealed an interesting pattern: the lower the scores on the test, the more opinion participants had of their literacy. Conversely, the students with the highest scores tended to underestimate their abilities.

Dunning and Krueger shared their hypothesis and supporting research findings in an article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in late 1999. The scientists received the Schnobel Prize for their research. Over the next 20 years, a number of studies confirmed the conclusions drawn by American psychologists and revealed the impact of the Dunning-Krueger effect on a variety of areas, from emotional intelligence to people’s knowledge of wine quality.

Incidentally, the last study mentioned above, published in the journal Food Quality and Preference, using a sample of wine consumers and using various statistical analyses, confirmed the Dunning-Kruger effect, raising serious concerns about using subjective or self-reported measures of knowledge to classify consumers as experts or non-experts. So, as you can see, one can encounter this phenomenon just about everywhere.

So why do the ignorant think they are experts? And how it manifests itself. Below are a few more illustrative examples.

Examples of the Dunning-Kruger effect in everyday life

Let’s start with the way people work. The Dunning-Kruger effect is often experienced by employees whose competencies are not sufficient for their tasks.

Why do ignoramuses think they are experts? The Dunning-Kruger Effect

After failing a performance review or a poorly completed project, such people look for the reason for their failure outside, thinking, for example, that the reviewer was biased against them. Being under the effect mentioned above, a person may be immune to constructive criticism and refuse to acknowledge the need to improve his qualifications.

The second prime example is how people elect politicians. People often hold extreme political views about complex politics. In a 2013 study published in the journal Association for Psychological Science, researchers suggested that people tend to know less about politics than they think they do (the illusion of depth of knowledge) and that polarized attitudes are supported by simplistic causal models.

In the study, asking participants to explain in detail the political position of their chosen party undermined the illusion of depth of knowledge and led to more moderate views. In the end, the researchers concluded that people’s misperception that they understand the causal processes underlying politics contributes to political polarization.

Obviously, this effect is a kind of thought trap. So what causes us to experience this effect?

Causes of the Dunning-Kruger effect

In a 2011 paper entitled Advances in Social Experimental Psychology, Dunning proposes the term “double burden” related to the low level of knowledge in the field. He phrases it as follows:

“Without experience it is difficult to work well. And at the same time it is hard to realize that you are not doing a good job if you have no experience”.

We get a kind of vicious circle: having no idea what kind of knowledge we lack, we do not consider it necessary to get it and sincerely believe that we have a pretty clear idea about something, even though it is not true.

Psychologists call the ability to assess knowledge (and gaps in knowledge) – metacognition. In general, people who are knowledgeable in an area have better metacognitive abilities than those who are not knowledgeable in that area.

How to recognize the onset of this effect?

Our brains are programmed to look for patterns and shortcuts that help us process information quickly and make decisions. Often these same patterns and shortcuts lead to certain biases.

Why do ignoramuses think they are experts? The Dunning-Kruger Effect

Interestingly, people tend to easily recognize the Dunning-Krueger effect in others, and at the same time fail to see that they themselves have fallen under it. It is important to realize that it is absolutely normal to encounter this phenomenon.

Even geniuses cannot be knowledgeable in all areas.

Suffice it to recall Sherlock Holmes, who, as a great detective, was a complete ignoramus of astronomy. He shocked Dr. Watson by his ignorance of the fact that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

You can be a professional and expert in certain areas and encounter the Dunning-Kruger effect in others. This is not a sign of low intelligence, but simply a specificity of our judgment in certain aspects that intelligent people can also encounter.

How to overcome the Dunning-Kruger effect? 6 tips

The first step to recognizing this effect is what you are doing right now. By reading about the Dunning-Kruger effect, in the future you will be able to determine more accurately when it manifests in your own life.

In their 1999 study, Dunning and Krueger found that learning allows participants in experiments to more accurately recognize their level of ability, knowledge and performance. Simply put, learning more information about a topic of interest can help determine what you don’t know yet.

Here are five more tips to apply when you think you’ve run into this effect:

1. Don’t jump to conclusions

Many of us tend to make quick decisions and conclusions about a topic. However, to avoid the Dunning-Kruger effect, it’s worth taking your time and spending some time gathering more information to get a broader understanding of the issue at hand.

2. Challenge your own assertions

To counter the Dunning-Kruger effect, try to stop taking your own assumptions for granted. To do this, try to come up with a counterargument or rebuttal to your ideas. Ask yourself: “Will you be able to do this?”.

3. Get rid of stereotypes

Stereotypical thinking helps increase our self-confidence, but it also decreases our metacognition. To get rid of stereotypes, try to try new things regularly, expand your horizons, and become flexible in your judgments.

4. Learn to accept criticism

Few of us like to hear criticism, but sometimes it can be very helpful. When you get criticism, ask for a list of what exactly you’re doing wrong and how to improve the result. Analyze what you hear and think about what might be helpful to you.

5. Challenge long-held beliefs about yourself

Have you always thought you were an excellent listener? Or do you think you’re great at English? The Dunning-Kruger effect suggests that you should be critical of what you are good at (to get a more objective assessment, try taking some kind of test that reflects your real level of knowledge in your chosen field).


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