John Cleese on How “Stupid People Have No Idea How Stupid They Are” (a.k.a. the Dunning-Kruger Effect)

I often say that, if you want to vastly overestimate your own capabilities, you need only do one of two things: (a) get coked out of your mind, or (b) get behind the wheel of a car. But what if the problem runs deeper in humanity than that? Indeed, what if our inability to perceive our own incompetence exactly matches the degree of the incompetence itself? Now, none of us can do everything well, but we’ve all met people who, even well outside of the contexts of drugs or driving, simply cannot grasp the full extent of how much they can’t do well. “The problem with people like this is that they are so stupid,” explains Monty Python’s John Cleese in the clip above, “they have no idea how stupid they are.”

“In order to know how good you are at something requires exactly the same skills as it does to be good at that thing in the first place,” Cleese elaborates, “which means — and this is terribly funny — that if you are absolutely no good at something at all, then you lack exactly the skills you need to know that you are absolutely no good at it.” With that, he gives us an extremely brief introduction to the Dunning–Kruger effect, “a cognitive bias wherein unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate” owing to “a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude” (and, by the same token, of “highly skilled individuals to underestimate their relative competence, erroneously assuming that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others”).

The effect takes its name from Cornell University researchers Justin Kruger and David Dunning, the latter of whom Cleese, who has spent time at Cornell as a long-term visiting professor (where he has, among other projects, taken part in a talk about creativity, group dynamics and celebrity), counts as a friend. He originally invoked Dunning and Kruger’s “wonderful bit of research” in the video “John Cleese Considers Your Futile Comments,” where he talks back to YouTube commenters on Monty Python videos — in this case, those who mentioned the names of certain political commentators beneath the 1970 sketch “Upperclass Twit of the Year.” “This explains not just Hollywood,” Cleese concludes, “but almost the entirety of Fox News.”

Those of you interested in both cognitive phenomena and conservative American political figures will surely have seen Gates of Heaven and A Brief History of Time documentarian Errol Morris’ most recent film The Unknown Known, a long-form conversation with former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In the years before its release, Morris wrote a five-part series for the New York Times called “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma,” fueled not just by his fascination with Rumsfeld but with his near-obsession over the Dunning-Kruger effect. In it, he actually interviews Dunning himself, who summarizes the issue thus: “We’re not very good at knowing what we don’t know.”

Dunning even brings up the subject of Rumsfeld first, specifically about his speech on “unknown unknowns” that gave Morris’ movie its title. It goes something like this: ‘There are things we know we know about terrorism. There are things we know we don’t know. And there are things that are unknown unknowns. We don’t know that we don’t know.’ He got a lot of grief for that. And I thought, ‘That’s the smartest and most modest thing I’ve heard in a year.'” When Morris followed up, Dunning added that “the notion of unknown unknowns really does resonate with me, and perhaps the idea would resonate with other people if they knew that it originally came from the world of design and engineering rather than Rumsfeld.” Or maybe they could associate it with the Ministry of Silly Walks instead.

via Laughing Squid

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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  • Simeon Grimes says:

    I can think of many things I am no good at without needing any skills to know I’m no good at them. Juggling, painting, cooking, farming, relationships. The list is endless. Or have I missed the point?

  • David Beierl says:

    Simeon Grimes, think instead of something you believe you’re good at. If you’re actually superb at it, you may think you’re only average-good. But if you stink at it, it’s entirely possible you think you’re not too bad. So skillful and unskilful people both tend to rate themselves as closer to average than they really are.

  • john hewitt says:

    I am an artist who has been praised by the worlds best in my field in years past,so I assume I am good at it. Then I look at others work that is more successful and wonder. I realize that what I am doing is what I want to do and not what is trending. Maybe it is not that good? Or maybe it is very good but average ability people can’t see the difference,

  • Patteecee says:

    John Hewitt, perhaps summing up artistic ability to either good/not good is not so much the question. Artistic appreciation is highly subjective and many of the world’s most lauded artists never received recognition in their lifetimes. While it feels nice to be appreciated and praised by one’s peers, the greatest reward seems to be that often elusive ability to be content and fulfilled within. Good for you and best wishes for continued success! Cheers.

  • Martin Gifford says:

    A similar line of thought is that decisive people are often that way because they think simplistically. This is problematic because people seem to be attracted to decisive leaders who seem “strong” because they are decisive, but in reality they are decisive because they are stupid and so their decisions will have bad consequences. Intelligent people, on the other hand, tend to be indecisive because they are considering more information. Unfortunately, indecisive people are seen as “weak” or incompetent because they are indecisive. So the stupid can rise to the top and lead everyone astray while the smart can languish at the bottom of society.

  • Anna Apieta says:

    “Intelligent people, on the other hand, tend to be indecisive …”

    I don’t think decisiveness has much to do with intellect. You may not like a decision but that does not mean it was stupid to make it. Keep in mind that not making a decision is making a decision — and it’s almost always the wrong decision.

  • Bob Cipnic says:

    Anna A , first, it isn’t a 100% correlation, but it do agree is a tendency. And I’m not sure Martin picked the most well-paired terms but …it’s not that “intelligent” people don’t eventually make a decision, they just go all around the possibilities compared to the “simplistic” approach. And they present their decision with it’s potential downside consequences once they’ve arrived at it as well, furthering the impression that decision is tenuous. Meanwhile, the quick, relatively uninformed decision, in which few, if any, of the potential negative consequences have been considered can be delivered with confidence. His use of “stupid” may also be a poor choice of words. Only he knows.

  • n.espinoza says:


  • Sean Crespo says:

    Welcome to Costco. I love you.

  • Louis Goldworm says:

    To be or not to be ? That is the Question ! To be thought of as stupid, or to open our mouths, and remove any doubt . Remember in life Those who can do, and those who can’t teach. But problem with this is those who can not teach those who can ? and on and on we go upwards towards the heavens, and beyond !

  • Louis Goldworm says:

    OH YEA ! I Love Costco !

  • Jenni says:

    I think you did. The point I think he was trying to push across was that people can be so ignorant and stupid, that they lack the capability to know when they’re not good at something. Just watch the bad auditions for American Idol or such. I think you’d get the idea then. John’s phrasing isn’t the best in the video.

  • Paul C says:

    good lord, this explains Katie Hopkins and all those obnoxious no-hopers on “The Apprentice”… inflated-self esteem in inverse proportion to actual ability.

  • Suzanne says:

    I’ve always loved the Dunning-Kruger work because it so perfectly captures the blowhards who are so numerous here in the US and so prominent in election years. How that I know John Cleese is friends with Dunning, I feel even more justified in my admiration.

  • Linda Lee says:

    Well, offhand I’d say that if we can understand what Mr. Cleese is on about we’re doing OK.

  • Josh in Champaign says:

    I’ve tested in the 90th percentile range on a couple of major IQ tests (including the WAIS III, which is very in depth) and in recent years, due in part to the revelation to the minds of the world via the internet and through day-to-day observations in life/work as well, I’ve found that high intelligence isn’t necessarily so high, but that average is just really stupid…and of course even highly intelligent people do a lot of stupid things, myself included. I marvel at the fact that we even have a functioning civilization. I think we could all do with a healthy dosage of humility and understanding. That’s the worst thing, is when we disagree with one another over things that none of us have a complete understanding of to point of being angry or divisive about it, that’s the real tragedy and the height of stupidity. If you agree with me, I’ve started a Facebook called Humans are Hypocrites, I’d love to know other people who have enough humility to be able to listen to others without bashing them. (I also discovered there’s a band from Southeast Asia with that name, it’s not that one. ;) )

  • Twobob says:

    “The more you learn, the more you realise how little you know”… fairly sure this isn’t a new idea, perhaps I’m being stupid.

    “How many professors, major legend celebrities and media pimped videos does it take to get people to consider the most basic of precepts?”

    The answer probably says more about society than it’s inability to parallel park ;)

    Devil’s advocacy over full support for the research and Mr. Cleese. His “Health and Safety” videos were the best.

  • Twobob says:

    “This goes in your ear…” – my first thought

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