This Is the Dunning-Kruger Effect (and Signs You Might Have It)

The more incompetent a person is at something, the better they overestimate themselves and their abilities. Do you know what you don't know?

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a phenomenon being talked about in the news lately, so it’s becoming more commonly known than it once was. No, it’s not a syndrome, disease, or mental illness, though it is present in everyone to some extent. Rather, Dunning-Kruger is an interesting psychological principle that explains that incompetent people rarely recognize that they’re incompetent. Instead, the worse they are at something the more greatly they are likely to overestimate themselves and their abilities.

Behind the name

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a term coined in 1999 by Cornell University social psychologist David Dunning, PhD, and graduate student Justin Kruger. In their original study, they performed a series of four investigations. People who scored in the lowest percentile on grammar, humor, and logic tests typically dramatically overestimated how well they’d performed. While their actual test scores placed them in, say, the 12th percentile, they estimated that their performance placed them in the 62nd percentile. In another experiment, researchers asked participants to rate how funny different jokes were. Some participants were exceptionally poor at determining what other people would find funny. Still, these same subjects described themselves as excellent judges of humor.

What is Dunning-Kruger Effect?

The Dunning-Kruger Effect describes how people think they’re much more competent, capable, and smarter than they really are. “Incompetent people don’t recognize their own incompetence,” says Dunning, who is now a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. They’re convinced that they excel at something when they don’t, overestimating their own capabilities. They lack the ability and self-awareness to recognize that they aren’t good at something; in fact, they’re incompetent at it. But they believe that they’re competent—even the best—sometimes to the point of being narcissistic. “People who display traits of the Dunning-Kruger Effect have what we in the mental health field call poor insight,” says Paul Hokemeyer, PhD, a clinical and consulting psychotherapist. “They typically have a fragile ego and feel the need to engage in the world with great bravado and hubris to feel safe.”

Examples of Dunning-Kruger

Bad drivers think they’re good drivers. Awful cooks think they can host Thanksgiving dinner. A bad manager thinks he’s a leader, oblivious to his poor managerial skills. A tone-deaf singer thinks she’s as talented as a Grammy winner. This is Dunning-Kruger in action.

Who is affected by Dunning-Kruger?

Unfortunately, we all are sooner or later. “We’re much more likely to think we see it in others than to accurately identify it in ourselves,” says Dr. Kruger. No matter how informed or experienced we may be, everyone has areas where they’re uninformed and incompetent. You might be smart and skilled in many areas, but no one is an expert at everything. “Take a kind and philosophical approach to people who insist they’re experts,” says Elizabeth Berger, MD, a psychiatrist and author of Raising Kids with Character. “Arguing and belittling someone who disagrees with you may have limited benefits.” She suggests saying something like, “How interesting! I’ll have to think about that! Maybe we don’t agree…”

You need skills to judge your skills

Researchers found that you need skill and knowledge to judge just how skilled and knowledgeable you are. Dunning and Kruger suggest that people’s incompetence causes them to overestimate their own skill and fail to recognize the expertise of others. “As soon as we gain some knowledge, we tend to overplay that knowledge,” says Dunning. For example, think about an untrained singer’s voice that needs a lot of improvement. If the singer saw her shortcomings, she’d consider getting voice lessons and she wouldn’t fight constructive criticisms of her singing. Dunning says you need to be most careful in new situations that you don’t have experience with: Be cautious on your first visit to a foreign country. Ask for baby advice when you’re a new parent. “The new stuff is where people really don’t know what they don’t know,” says Dunning.

You know one thing, but you don’t know it all

People who are genuine experts in one area may mistakenly believe that their intelligence and knowledge carry over into other areas in which they’re less familiar. A brilliant scientist, for example, might be a very poor writer. For the scientist to recognize his poor writing skills, he needs knowledge of grammar and composition. Because he lacks those skills, though, this scientist doesn’t realize his writing isn’t on par. Just use kid gloves when handling people in a situation like this. “Dealing with people is itself a complex art,” says Dr. Berger. “The kind of response called for depends a lot on the situation and context. Many people react poorly to being corrected by others. It’s easy to hurt someone’s feelings by giving advice which isn’t being actively sought.” Dunning says to weigh in only if it matters. How someone spreads jam on toast isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things, he says. But if a drunk person doesn’t realize he’s impaired, call him a cab, says Dunning, since that can have more damaging consequences.

Not everyone knows what you know

Those who are highly skilled think that what they’re an expert on is just as easy for everybody else, says Dunning. That’s why your doctor and carpenter talk so fast, he says. They think you know much more than you really do when they’re giving you the explanation. “They don’t realize how special they are or how far behind everybody else is,” he says. “They think everyone else is just as skilled as them.”

Overcoming Dunning-Kruger: Become self-aware

Many people underperform because they don’t know what they could be doing better. To have the knowledge and intelligence needed to be good at something, you need to be able to recognize when you’re not good at it. “Judging your own skills doesn’t mean you need to be hypercritical of yourself,” says Hokemeyer. “It means that you need to look at life as an opportunity to become better. Life opens up when we view ourselves as imperfect human beings who move incrementally towards better versions of ourselves.” Otherwise, you’ll stay ignorant to the fact that you aren’t good at that task.

Overcoming Dunning-Kruger: Dig deep

Researchers suggest that as your experience with a subject increases, your confidence tends to become more realistic. As you learn more about a certain topic, you recognize your own lack of knowledge or ability. So, instead of assuming you know everything about a subject, go deeper. That way you’ll realize you’re not an expert.

Overcoming Dunning-Kruger: Ask for feedback

Ask others for constructive criticism. Yes, it can be difficult at times to hear negativity, but such feedback can offer invaluable insight into how others view your abilities. As you sort through feedback, continue looking for that which challenges your self-perception. “The real trick is to always be learning,” says Dunning. “You’re not subject to the effect if you’re gaining skills.” And he says you should always be listening, too, as a way of learning about yourself. Here’s how to handle criticism—the right way.

Spotting Dunning-Kruger in others

How you respond to others who overestimate their own knowledge or skills depends on the situation, says Dr. Berger. “Most situations in which someone overestimates personal skills aren’t a real danger, only an annoyance to listen to,” says Dr. Berger. But, she says, a parent might take away car keys if a teenager boasts about being a great driver despite having gotten into a few car accidents.

If you’re the one who has been asked to give feedback, do so delicately. “Speak from personal experience,” says Hokemeyer. “Talk about your successes and failures and the value you’ve enjoyed from living your life in a state of humble curiosity.” You have to be able to let some of it go. “It’s not your job to take responsibility for everyone’s quirks,” says Dr. Berger.

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Stacey Feintuch is a seasoned print and digital writer who has worked at numerous health and parenting websites and magazines. She is the mother of two energetic boys and resides in northern New Jersey.