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Incompetent and Blissfully Unaware: The Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Incompetent and Blissfully Unaware: The Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Sarah Bridges, Ph.D., MBA

When the notes started arriving on my windshield, I had an epiphany. Maybe I wasn’t that great of a driver. I still have the one that reads, “Learn to park!!” My work team found it so hilarious they stuck it up on the break-room bulletin board. No one was moved by my discussion that it was just a sign of the other driver’s road rage. When the second note came, I couldn’t write it off. I really wasn’t good at parking. I realized I’d assumed, since I’d taken Drivers’ Ed as a teenager, that I was great behind the wheel. I’m not alone in this “over-estimating-skill” problem. It is something we psychologists call the Dunning-Kruger Effect.


Picture a chart. It has two axes like a box that was cut diagonally. Up the left vertical is a line measuring confidence. The lower left corner implies a lack of confidence, and the upper left signals high belief. On the horizontal axis is competence. How we actually perform. The first dot on any graph of new skill-building is hovering in the lower leftcorner—we lack skills and self-assurance. Then comes the “knowing-enough-to-be-dangerous” moment. People gain some knowledge of a topic, which leads most of them to believe they’ve got it down. They suddenly become highly confident, though they are still incompetent. The graph spikes up to the top of the left side then rolls into a smile as it progresses. Really, we should have a frown. The height of our belief in our abilities should start low and slowly ascend as we learn. This isn’t what often happens.


The effect was discovered by two social psychologists, Dr. David Dunning and Dr. Justin Kruger. In lab experiments, they consistently found that highly unskilled people overestimated their effectiveness on a variety of measures. For instance, in one lab experiment, they asked subjects to self-rate their talents with grammar, logic, and humor. People with the most dismal results (landing in the 12th percentile) scored themselves above average (at the 62nd percentile).


The authors explained that this is yet another cognitive bias. Humans latch onto the idea that they are immediately brighter and better at things than is true. It is not a personality disorder or other pathology. Instead, it is a combination of lower cognitive skills and poor self-awareness. Rather than realizing, “Wow, I have a lot to learn to be good at this,” the sufferers mix up heady conviction with actual talent. In moments like this, there is a failure of what we psychologists call metacognition or the ability to objectively evaluate ourselves from the outside in. With our limited understanding of a topic or tasks, we falsely think we grasp all there is to know. A sign it’s happening is when people make bold comments showing the gap. As one leader I coached said, “I knew our president was in the grips of this when a competitor made a bone-headed move.” I said, “Well, of course, he went to Dunning-Kruger U,” and the president piped up, “Weird, I’d heard that was a good school.”


So what can we do about it? Practice asking questions such as:

  • Do I know all there is to know about this topic?
  • Am I lapsing into the confirmation bias? It’s easy to slip into noticing only things that corroborate our beliefs.
  • What disputes my opinions on the topic? Gather opposing data. The more you learn, the more you realize there is to learn.
  • How can I receive honest feedback? Ensure that there are regular, candid means for gathering input on your performance. 360-degree tools, open conversations, and studying others’ reactions to your “competence” can provide valuable clues.


Without feedback, we are happily shooting in the dark.


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