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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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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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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