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.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

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John Cleese Explains the Brain — and the Plea­sures of DirecTV

John Cleese’s Phi­los­o­phy of Cre­ativ­i­ty: Cre­at­ing Oases for Child­like Play

Why You Do Your Best Think­ing In The Show­er: Cre­ativ­i­ty & the “Incu­ba­tion Peri­od”

Jorge Luis Borges: “Soc­cer is Pop­u­lar Because Stu­pid­i­ty is Pop­u­lar”

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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Comments (40)
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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.

  • 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

  • Sheri says:

    Remem­ber, Dun­ning and Kruger are not exempt­ed from the Dun­ning-Kruger effect.

  • Allen says:

    a shin­ing exam­ple of the Dun­ning-Kruger work, thank you Suzanne

  • Behzad says:

    Reminds me of an old piece of Per­sian poet­ry:
    انکس که بداند و بداند که بداند
    اسب شرف از گنبد گردون بجهاند
    انکس که بداند و بداند که بداند
    بیدار کنیدش که بسی خفته نماند
    انکس که نداند و بداند که نداند
    لنگان خرک خویش به منزل برساند
    انکس که نداند و نداند که نداند
    در جهل مرکب ابد الدهر بماند
    “He who knows and knows that he knows
    Shall race his noble horse to the bound­aries of the uni­verse
    He who knows and does not know that he knows
    Wake him! Pity if he stays that way for too long
    He who does not know and knows that he does­n’t know
    Slow­ly but sure­ly shall reach his des­ti­na­tion albeit on his crip­pled don­key
    He who does not know and does­n’t know that he does­n’t know
    In ink dark igno­rance shall he remain, eter­nal­ly.”

  • Behzad says:

    I made a mis­take ; the third line of the poem should be like this:
    انکس که بداند ونداند که بداند
    A mat­ter of dots, above or under. No wor­ries!

  • Jesse Bethel says:

    I am a huge fan of John Cleese, as well as open cul­ture, but I don’t think a 1 minute expo­si­tion of the Dun­ning-Kruger effect does any­one any good. This is not an exam­ple of open cul­ture that opens and expands minds, this is a sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of a very seri­ous con­di­tion that seri­ous­ly sim­pli­fies and degrades com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

  • Loucas says:

    Smart peo­ple sus­pect they are stu­pid. Stu­pid peo­ple don’t.
    That’s the only dif­fer­ence.

  • Barry says:

    “John’s phras­ing isn’t the best in the video”…A lit­tle arro­gant per­haps. Maybe you could be a case study for the Dun­ning-Kruger effect.

    The point he was “try­ing to push across”…Who are you? It’s like say­ing “the play Shake­speare was try­ing to write…”

    Also, I’ve nev­er seen a com­ma before “that” in a “so/such…that con­struc­tion”. Maybe your “phras­ing isn’t the best” in your com­ment.

  • Bonzo says:

    How can u call yrself “open cul­ture” while demand­ing this “required” info as a con­di­tion of access?

  • Matthew says:

    “It isn’t what we don’t know that gets us in the most trou­ble, it’s what we think we know that’s not so.” Wil Rodgers

  • Doug says:

    As much as I like John Cleese’s work, his smug arro­gance in describ­ing oth­ers hav­ing Dun­ning-Kruger effect makes me think he has his owns sense of illu­sion­ary supe­ri­or­i­ty.

  • MEL says:

    Well. yes and No, I was once so effi­cient at yo-yoing I was STATE cham­pi­on. But it was­n’t till I tried knit­ting I did­nt know I did­nt know a stitch about it don’t you see.?

  • Peter says:

    I think the answer may be found in bound­ed ratio­nal­i­ty and heuris­tics. Deci­sions must be made in a time­ly fash­ion to be effec­tive.

  • Kelly Anspaugh says:

    Yea, it’s no good, John. It sucks. Just kid­ding it’s fab.

  • Barbara says:

    I thought that the con­cept of “unknown unknowns” came from the Johari Win­dow, which was cre­at­ed in 1955 by psy­chol­o­gists.

  • John Mastriani says:

    Fits with the four stages of career per­for­mance.

    1. Uncon­cious incom­pe­tence
    2. Con­cious­ly incom­pe­tent
    3. Con­cious­ly com­pe­tent
    4. Uncon­cious com­pe­tence

  • David Ellery says:

    I believe that it is just when we think we are at our smartest that we are on the verge of doing some­thing pro­found­ly stu­pid. It nev­er hurts to sec­ond guess your assump­tions before you act on them. This con­cept can be traced back to Socrates (and before). It is even hint­ed at in the Epic of Gil­gamesh.

  • Edgar Burton says:

    John Cleese is an igno­rant ass, as are you blow-hard, self-absorbed morons.

  • Tony says:

    We all know that we know cer­tain things, and we know we don’t know oth­ers. The point is that most peo­ple think that ratio is far more bal­anced than it ever could be. It’s Socrates in Pla­to’s “Apol­o­gy,” the wis­est man is the one who can acknowl­edge he knows almost noth­ing. The deep­er you dive into aca­d­e­mics or oth­er var­i­ous stud­ies, the more the real les­son is less about col­lect­ing facts, and more about real­is­ing how small a frac­tion of the total col­lec­tion of human knowl­edge each one of us pos­sess­es, and how equal­ly small that frac­tion is com­pared to some imag­i­nary sum of all pos­si­ble knowl­edge. Rel­a­tive to either of these, the dif­fer­ence between the wis­est man and the sim­plest fool becomes noth­ing.

  • Ellen Abramowitz says:

    A great Euro­pean Rab­bi who sur­vived the Holo­caust taught: You’ve got to know what you know; and you’ve got to know what you don’t know.

  • Nart Borgen says:

    I’d con­sid­er a dona­tion, but im loathe to give my mon­ey to an Eng­lish­man, or fur­ther their dia­bol­i­cal anti human­i­tar­i­an efforts..

  • Braulio Ramírez says:

    They will need to check Socrates thinks. Socrates said some­thing sim­i­lar to this, pre­cise­ly about over two toun­sand years ago.

  • Tom Wortel says:

    Ever noticed that peo­ple with edu­ca­tion have opin­ions on sub­jects they’re not pro­fesst in’ & many oth­ers in pro­fess­ing their employ­ment that does­n’t suit their demeanor which makes them seem use­less’ a term’ delu­sions of grandeur comes to mind’ the polit­i­cal waf­fle tossers are a good exam­ple!

  • JEFF SEGAL says:

    Does it real­ly mat­ter?,
    If one is clever or stu­pid, as the sto­ry goes you cant teach a fish to climb a tree but that does­n’t make it stu­pid. We live in a world of dif­fer­ent peo­ples, cul­tures and think­ing!

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