The Dunning-Kruger Effect Makes People Think They’re Great — Even When Their Work Is Terrible

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It’s not a disease, condition or mental health problem. The Dunning-Kruger Effect is actually a psychological  response that prevents people from realizing how inept they are.

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The Dunning-Kruger Effect is basically this: the more incompetent someone is at something, the less likely they realize it. Instead, they believe they are nailing it.

Social psychologist David Dunning, PhD, and graduate student Justin Kruger came up with the principle at Cornell University in 1999. In their study, they investigated groups of people, testing them in the areas of logic, grammar and humor. The lower an individual scored, the more they overestimated their skills. They observed when participants scored in the 12th percentile, those same participants would estimate their own scores as being in the 62nd.

Dunning and Kruger also asked subjects to judge the humor in a list of jokes. Some of the participants were considerably poor judges of the quality of the jokes. Yet, they scored themselves quite high on their ability to judge what others would find funny.

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When people believe themselves to be more competent and capable then they really are, they are showing classic Dunning-Kruger. They lack the self-awareness to recognize their own inabilities almost to the point of narcissism.

Paul Hokemeyer, PhD, a clinical and consulting psychotherapist, also adds that from a mental health standpoint, people who exhibit the Dunning-Kruger Effect are often labeled as having poor insight. They hide behind their heightened sense of ability for safety and to protect their sensitive egos.

You may have observed the Dunning-Kruger Effect in action (I’d bet most of us have). The worst worker in the office is often the one who brags about performance. Or maybe you have a friend who is the worst driver on the road, yet claims she’s the best driver out there. Or you know a guy who says he’s a highly sought after guitarist, but then you hear him play…and not so much.

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We can all be guilty of Dunning-Kruger in varying degrees. No one wants to admit they are the worst at something, even though we can generally recognize incompetence in others. But don’t bother arguing with someone in the throes of the Dunning-Kruger Effect; remember, they don’t actually see their own inability.

The best way to avoid succumbing to Dunning-Kruger is to understand how rare it is to be an expert at something new. Ask questions or take lessons. Don’t assume anything if you haven’t been completely educated or trained on the task.

And just because you’re a genius on one subject does not mean you are a genius in general. Know when you need help with something. Ask for feedback. Accept criticism. And always be humble and willing to learn more.