• Robb G. Best

The Dunning-Kruger Effect: Are You Under its Spell?

When it comes to brain biases, one that gets an awful lot of play is the Dunning-Kruger Effect. It's a phenomenon demonstrated by many studies, but it all started with, you guessed it, Dunning and Kruger.

The pair surveyed undergrad college students who had just taken a test, asking each student to predict his or her score. Then they compared each student's guess against the results.

The students who did really well on the test had slightly downgraded predictions. The students who did poorly, on the other hand, had overestimated their scores by an average of 30%.

In Daniel R. Hawes' article "When Ignorance Begets Confidence: The Dunning-Kruger Effect", he shares the same general conclusion from another study:

"Participants who took tests in their ability to think logically, to write grammatically, and to spot funny jokes tended to overestimate their percentile ranking relative to their peers by some 40 to 50 points, thinking they were outperforming a majority of their peers when, in fact, they are the ones being outperformed."

Put more frankly, people with limited knowledge have the potential to make total fools of themselves, without ever realizing how ridiculous they seem to everyone else. The problem of course, is you don't know what you don't know, so unless someone breaks through the wall of that person's cognitive dissonance, it can perpetuate itself forever.

So here is an interesting question, and one that might be slightly uncomfortable. What if you are the poster child for the Dunning-Kruger Effect? What if you're the one they're chatting about around the water cooler? To that end, I share the following four warning signs for D-KE.

• Any conversation that begins with your coworkers saying, in voices choked with withheld laughter, "Tell us that story again." As in, "Tell us again how you explained to the exterminator that insects developed wings not so much through an evolutionary process but because they just didn't know they couldn't or shouldn't be able to fly."

• When you approach the water cooler and the eye rolls move from person to person like the wave at a football game, and then they all break into a smile.

• You believe that simply observing someone do something qualifies you as an expert, as in, "I've seen Mick Jaeger twelve times, how hard would it be to strut around on stage like that– provided I had access to his wardrobe."

• Any time your sentence contains the following words: "It's not rocket science..." This one is actually a double whammy, because the Dunning-Kruger Effect is in play when you believe you understand rocket science enough to make a generalized statement, and likewise assume you are an expert in what you're comparing rocket science to.

Important note: the above list is by no means a complete catalog of being under the influence of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, but it's a start.

It's also important to understand that D-KE is not the same as self-delusion. Self-delusion happens when you are in some way a willful party to the charade. But as a participant in the Dunning-Kruger Effect, you are completely oblivious to your behavior—which means without outside intervention, the behavior could continue indefinitely.

We all know people like this. They are both fascinating, and infuriating. And although it is unlikely that you or I will have any effect on the way they operate, there is something satisfying about at least having a name for their ilk.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to watch another video on a note-for-note breakdown of essential Jimi Hendrix guitar licks. Because there are two things I know to be true: practice makes perfect, and if I only had his guitar, I'd give old Jimi a run for his money.

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