Boy That Guy’s a Moron – The Dunning-Kruger effect

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge” – Charles Darwin

Have you ever been frustrated by the incompetence of another person in your professional or personal life?  Has their incompetence been more infuriating because they seemed not to recognize their own limitations?  Then this blog post is for you!  I’ll cover the science behind this phenomenon and offer some suggestions for ensuring that you aren’t a member of this “clueless clan”.

Achieving self-insight has been a timeless goal of forward thinking people.  The maxim “Know thyself” dates back to ancient Greece, often attributed to the philosopher Socrates.  It’s durability as a guiding concept confirms the importance of recognizing one’s limitations.  But while a mirror can show us the poppy seed stuck in our teeth, it’s tougher to see the flaws in our competence.

Psychiatrists have long observed a medical condition involving poor self-awareness.  The condition, known as anosognosia, causes patients to be unaware of an existing illness or disability.  Anosognosia is seen in patients who’ve undergone strokes or who’ve had brain injuries due to accidents.  These patients will deny that they are paralyzed and will confabulate reasons that they can’t move a body part (e.g. “I’m too tired right now”).  These patients are not lying and actually believe they have fully functioning bodies.  Another tragic example of anosognosia occurs in severely mentally ill people.  Patients with schizophrenia who are not properly medicated can be the victim of auditory hallucinations.  Unfortunately, these folks are prone to believing that the “voices” are real and not a by-product of any illness.

The Dunning-Kruger effect has been called the Anosognosia of everyday life.  It is not a medical condition, but a pervasive phenomenon where incompetent people don’t recognize their own incompetence.  The effect was named by two social psychology researchers, David Dunning and Justin Kruger, who investigated the phenomenon in 1999.  Dunning and Kruger tested people’s abilities vs. their self-assessments across such domains as reasoning, grammar and humor.  What they found was that the lower someone scored on one of these tests, the greater the gap between ability and self-assessment.  For example, on the grammar test, the bottom quartile performers pre-estimated their abilities as being in the 67th percentile.  Second quartile performers also overestimated their capabilities, but by a smaller margin.  Interestingly, third quartile performers (average to above average) estimated their abilities almost inline with their results.  The top quartile actually underestimated their abilities.

Subsequent studies have shown that the Dunning-Kruger effect is not limited to low performing individuals.  Under certain circumstances, high-performing people can also overestimate their capabilities.  Either way, most people would agree that they see anecdotal evidence of the effect at work in their professional and personal lives.  So the question is, how can we become more aware of our limitations and therefore strive for improved capabilities?  While it’s easy to catch others acting in a self-deceptive fashion, by definition, it’s “impossible” to notice your own delusions.

Anyone seriously interested in recognizing their own incompetence has to be open to accepting criticism and to hearing hurtful assessments of their performance.  This requires a level of humility and courage that is not common.  It also requires one to trust the intentions and wisdom of those providing feedback.  Let’s assume you’re still on board.  How would you go about recognizing your own underperformance?

The approach you would take varies depending on the type of skill you are attempting to measure.  If the skill in question is objectively measurable via a scoring mechanism, it is easy to assess.  It’s pretty straight forward to determine if you’re a good sprinter, more difficult to determine how good a singer you are.  Even if the skill you are measuring is not easily “score-able”, there are ways to determine your competence.  One classic workplace measurement is professional competence.  Utilizing an anonymous 360 degree review is a solid way to get useful and honest feedback on your performance.  Another way to see yourself through other’s eyes involves recording yourself.  For example, if you are an aspiring performer or public speaker, watching a video of your work can be enlightening.

Another simple way to gain self-insight is to rely on trusted friends and co-workers who know you well.  These should be folks that understand you well enough to recognize your areas of weakness and feel comfortable enough to present them candidly to you.   Additionally, these have to be folks without an axe to grind who simply want you to be the best you can be.

It’s easy to spot incompetence, overconfidence and self-deception in others.  It’s hard to have the courage and self-confidence to see these limitations in oneself.  People on a mission of humility, improved self-insight and continuous growth need to apply purposeful techniques to counter the Dunning-Kruger effect.  While this may result in some short term emotional pain, the long term benefits will be worth it.

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One Response to Boy That Guy’s a Moron – The Dunning-Kruger effect

  1. Pat Petersen says:

    I enjoyed the post. People need someone they trust to give them the honest truth. Self-awareness is not something many people think about. Overconfidence in experts is as fatal as ignorance.

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