“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.”
- Albert Einstein
We’ve all experienced it. You’re sitting around the table for a family dinner. Across the table from you is that cousin you haven’t seen since the last family get together. In the most confident fashion, he opens his mouth and starts talking passionately on a subject he clearly knows very little about.
You look down at your phone and in one quick Google search, you find out that everything he’s saying is completely wrong. But he doesn’t seem to know it. Everyone else at the table doesn’t seem to know it either. His confidence is so strong and unwavering that you start to wonder - does this guy know how wrong he really is?
This is the Dunning-Kruger effect. People who know very little about a subject tend to overestimate how much they know because they just don’t know how much they don’t know. As a result, the people who are most confident in their ability are not usually the ones who should be.
“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”
- Charles Darwin
The term Dunning-Kruger is named after the two scientists who first discovered the psychological phenomenon, David Dunning and Justin Kruger.
In 1999, they carried out a research titled “unskilled and unaware of it” where they tested a group of people on grammar, humor, and logic. In the first experiment, the 65 participants were asked to rate jokes they thought people would find funny.
The people who personally felt they were excellent judges of humor were the ones who did the worst on the test.
Dunning and Kruger then put the same participants through varying degrees of grammar and logic tests and the results always came out the same. For the most part, the people who scored the least were the most confident going into the test, and overestimated how well they did afterward. While those who scored the most, overestimated how well everyone else did.
Now you might think, how does this really happen? Surely you should know when you fail a test, right? You have that gut feeling, and after all, you're the one who wrote it yourself. But that only happens when you know nothing about the subject at all.
When we learn just a little about that subject, we start overestimating how much we know. We are aware that we know about the subject. However, we don’t know enough to know that there is still so much more to learn. We are not yet skilled enough to accurately access our knowledge and abilities, so we think we know much more than we actually do.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
- Alexander Pope
Imagine you’re given a test about the culture of extraterrestrial life. You just watched a 30-minute YouTube documentary and you’re feeling pretty good about your knowledge of things that haven’t been proven to exist. But apart from this documentary, you haven’t done any other research about extraterrestrial life. You haven’t been to space, and you certainly don’t have any Alien friends.
You’re handed the test and in it, you’re asked to answer 20 questions about life as an extraterrestrial. I know what you’re thinking. You’re not entirely ignorant. You just watched a 30-minute documentary about Aliens so you’ll certainly ace this test, or at least do better than average.
Well, that is the Dunning-Kruger effect at work. Because the truth is, just one documentary is not nearly enough. You’ve only just discovered the tip of the iceberg, but because you don’t know how big the ice under the water is, you’ll keep living in the illusion that you’ve explored all of it.
And we see this everyday. From your cousin sitting across the room to that one coworker that gets really annoyed when someone else gets the promotion they feel they so desperately deserve.
Performance reports at work give us an unbiased view on how well we’ve done. However, when people who truly don’t know all that much get these results, they aren’t satisfied with it. Because in their minds, they’ve done a lot better than what the report says. So they make up excuses like “the boss doesn’t like me” or look down on the coworker that got the promotion over them. Not stopping for once to think that maybe they still have a lot to learn.
All the engineers in a company were once asked to rate their work and determine how well they were doing compared to the rest of their colleagues. 42% of the engineers believed that they were among the top 5% in the company.
In another scenario, professors were asked whether they did average, below average, or above average work. 94% of all the professors in the survey believed that they do above average work - “a figure that defies mathematical plausibility.” You would think that professors who are always grading people would be able to come up with a more accurate self-assessment. But the reality is, we are all victims of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Both as professor and student.
Some scientists argue that the Dunning-Kruger effect might not be because of poor self-assessment, but rather just the poor performers wanting to paint a fluffed up report of their performance. And while you can get where this argument is coming from, it doesn’t make sense because there are a lot of places where we observe the Dunning-Kruger effect even when there’s no reason for the person to want to look good.
The truth is we can’t give an accurate judgement of skills we know only very little about because we simply don’t know what is good and what is not, we haven’t seen both ends of the spectrum.
“I am not young enough to know everything.”
- Oscar Wilde
Metacognition is the awareness of your own thought processes. It’s being able to plan, monitor, and access your own performance and understanding. It’s like your brain’s way of grading itself. In their research, Dunning and Kruger discovered that the less people know about a subject, the lesser their metacognitive ability around that subject. This is what makes them unaware of their own incompetence.
And this is a very strange thing because it means that oftentimes, the loudest person in the room is usually the one who knows the least.
“One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.”
- Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell said this in 1951 and it still rings true today, even now more than ever. Because although he thought it was just a thing of his time, it wasn’t. It was simply the Dunning-Kruger effect at work.
The sad thing is that people who know the least are also the people who are least likely to take up a learning opportunity. Think about the 42% of engineers who believed they were in the top 5%. They will most likely ignore any opportunities to learn from their colleagues, because they already believe they are the best.
On the other hand, the people who are the best don’t realize that they are so special, so they don’t try to teach others, even when they’re the ones that should be doing that. In the end, the company remains stagnant. Life is very much like this company.
Go on the internet today and the loudest voices are the ones who know the least. Everywhere you turn there’s a fake guru trying to teach you how to become a billionaire overnight. They have very little knowledge, but that doesn’t stop them from selling thousand-dollar courses with the same basic information you can get just by Googling the right things.
The sad thing is that most people buy into their confidence and certainty only to realize too late that it was all bravado and no substance.
Now more than ever, misinformation is a bigger problem than ignorance. People briefly glance through a topic and they instantly want to start teaching others. They don’t take their time to actually read past the first page of the instruction manual before screaming at the rooftops about how much they know. Or rather, how much they think they know.
So more often than not, we’re listening to the most confident people and not the most reputable. We accept information from the person who speaks the loudest, rather than the person who is the most knowledgeable.
From 5G death scares to anti-vax campaigns, people are constantly satisfied with knowing the bare minimum. Not only are they satisfied, they are confident that they know it all and they waste no time in sharing that information with others.
If the loudest voices are ignorant, why aren’t the knowledgeable speaking up? Again, it’s the Dunning-Kruger effect.
When the 65 participants were given the three tests by Dunning and Kruger, the people who scored the best often knew they did pretty well in the test. However, they felt everyone else did too. They overestimated the scores of the other people in the test and didn’t think anything special of their own results. When asked to place themselves in a percentile, more often than not, the people who did the best placed themselves lower than they actually were.
Because of this, the people who have any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision. The people who are most knowledgeable don’t realize that they are, so they find it difficult to speak up.
It’s easy for us to think that because something comes so easily and naturally to us, it does to others. It’s easy to think we’re not special and that everyone can do as well as we’ve done. But in reality, that’s not true. In fact, if you think your work is not good enough, then it’s already probably better than most. Because unlike the people at the bottom of the percentile, you know what you don’t know. So you are more willing to improve.
“Wisdom is knowing how much I don’t know.”
The Dunning-Kruger effect is not entirely a bad thing. In fact, it’s the reason most of us can take a leap of faith. I started this channel without knowing how difficult running a YouTube channel is. How badly an algorithm can beat you down, how the numbers on the screen affect the value you place on your work. I didn’t know all of that at first. All I knew was to make a video and upload it.
I feel like if I had known how difficult it would be in the long run, I might have never even started. So, in a way, the Dunning-Kruger effect helps us to make the first move without worrying too much about everything we don’t know yet. It gives us the confidence to start.
Once we take that first step, though, it’s up to us to not get comfortable and confident in the little that we know. We must fight the cognitive bias and realize that we’ve only just scratched the surface and there’s still a long way to go.
We are often taught not to compare ourselves with others. And most of the time, that’s excellent advice. Constantly pitting yourself against others can leave you unhappy and unmotivated. But the truth is, comparison isn’t always a bad thing. When we compare ourselves with others, we are able to better assess how well we’re doing.
Think about the participants of Dunning and Kruger’s experiment. If the people who scored the lowest were shown the scores of all the participants afterward, they would have been able to understand that they weren’t as knowledgeable as they thought they were.
If you’re very confident about how much you know, pause for a minute. Take your time before sharing that information with others. Question your longstanding views and opinions, because there just might be new information that has come to light to disprove what you hold so dearly to your heart.
Be open to feedback and criticism. While it’s true that people shouldn’t discourage your dreams, you need to understand that sometimes you may be overestimating your skills. So take the criticism and consider it carefully. If you do, you’re most likely going to learn a thing or two that you didn’t already know.
When you’re fully aware of the metacognitive bias that is the Dunning-Kruger effect, you’ll know when to ask for objective criticism and feedback, and when to trust your own abilities and realize that you just might be special after all.
Don’t be satisfied with the little knowledge you have, keep improving, continue learning, always ask questions, and be curious.
Your curiosity will be rewarded, whether you realize it or not.
“I am not a genius, I am just curious.”
- Albert Einstein
- EE, MM