Why Incompetent People Think They’re Amazing: An Animated Lesson from David Dunning (of the Famous “Dunning-Kruger Effect”)

The busi­ness world has long had spe­cial jar­gon for the Kafkaesque incom­pe­tence bedev­il­ing the ranks of upper man­age­ment. There is “the Peter prin­ci­ple,” first described in a satir­i­cal book of the same name in 1968. More recent­ly, we have the pos­i­tive notion of “fail­ing upward.” The con­cept has inspired a mantra, “fail hard­er, fail faster,” as well as pop­u­lar books like The Gift of Fail­ure. Famed research pro­fes­sor, author, and TED talk­er Brené Brown has called TED “the fail­ure con­fer­ence,” and indeed, a “Fail­Con” does exist, “in over a dozen cities on 6 con­ti­nents around the globe.”

The can­dor about this most unavoid­able of human phe­nom­e­na may prove a boon to pub­lic health, low­er­ing lev­els of hyper­ten­sion by a sig­nif­i­cant mar­gin. But is there a dan­ger in prais­ing fail­ure too fer­vent­ly? (Samuel Beckett’s quote on the mat­ter, beloved by many a 21st cen­tu­ry thought leader, proves decid­ed­ly more ambigu­ous in con­text.) Might it present an even greater oppor­tu­ni­ty for peo­ple to “rise to their lev­el of incom­pe­tence”? Giv­en the preva­lence of the “Dun­ning-Kruger Effect,” a cog­ni­tive bias explained by John Cleese in a pre­vi­ous post, we may not be well-placed to know whether our efforts con­sti­tute suc­cess or fail­ure, or whether we actu­al­ly have the skills we think we do.

First described by social psy­chol­o­gists David Dun­ning (Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan) and Justin Kruger (N.Y.U.) in 1999, the effect “sug­gests that we’re not very good at eval­u­at­ing our­selves accu­rate­ly.” So says the nar­ra­tor of the TED-Ed les­son above, script­ed by Dun­ning and offer­ing a sober reminder of the human propen­si­ty for self-delu­sion. “We fre­quent­ly over­es­ti­mate our own abil­i­ties,” result­ing in wide­spread “illu­so­ry supe­ri­or­i­ty” that makes “incom­pe­tent peo­ple think they’re amaz­ing.” The effect great­ly inten­si­fies at the low­er end of the scale; it is often “those with the least abil­i­ty who are most like­ly to over­rate their skills to the great­est extent.” Or as Cleese plain­ly puts it, some peo­ple “are so stu­pid, they have no idea how stu­pid they are.”

Com­bine this with the con­verse effect—the ten­den­cy of skilled indi­vid­u­als to under­rate themselves—and we have the pre­con­di­tions for an epi­dem­ic of mis­matched skill sets and posi­tions. But while imposter syn­drome can pro­duce trag­ic per­son­al results and deprive the world of tal­ent, the Dun­ning-Kruger effect’s worst casu­al­ties affect us all adverse­ly. Peo­ple “mea­sur­ably poor at log­i­cal rea­son­ing, gram­mar, finan­cial knowl­edge, math, emo­tion­al intel­li­gence, run­ning med­ical lab tests, and chess all tend to rate their exper­tise almost as favor­ably as actu­al experts do.” When such peo­ple get pro­mot­ed up the chain, they can unwit­ting­ly do a great deal of harm.

While arro­gant self-impor­tance plays its role in fos­ter­ing delu­sions of exper­tise, Dun­ning and Kruger found that most of us are sub­ject to the effect in some area of our lives sim­ply because we lack the skills to under­stand how bad we are at cer­tain things. We don’t know the rules well enough to suc­cess­ful­ly, cre­ative­ly break them. Until we have some basic under­stand­ing of what con­sti­tutes com­pe­tence in a par­tic­u­lar endeav­or, we can­not even under­stand that we’ve failed.

Real experts, on the oth­er hand, tend to assume their skills are ordi­nary and unre­mark­able. “The result is that peo­ple, whether they’re inept or high­ly skilled, are often caught in a bub­ble of inac­cu­rate self-per­cep­tion.” How can we get out? The answers won’t sur­prise you. Lis­ten to con­struc­tive feed­back and nev­er stop learn­ing, behav­ior that can require a good deal of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty and humil­i­ty.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Research Finds That Intel­lec­tu­al Humil­i­ty Can Make Us Bet­ter Thinkers & Peo­ple; Good Thing There’s a Free Course on Intel­lec­tu­al Humil­i­ty

The Pow­er of Empa­thy: A Quick Ani­mat­ed Les­son That Can Make You a Bet­ter Per­son

Free Online Psy­chol­o­gy & Neu­ro­science Cours­es

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • jake says:

    When peo­ple real­ize the dif­fer­ence between self-con­grat­u­la­tion and self-exam­i­na­tion, this might begin to change. How­ev­er, I have my doubts about that hap­pen­ing

  • Kent norton says:

    There is such a thing called a “imposter phe­nom­e­non”. I agree that great peo­ple feel they are ordi­nary and Stu­pid feel they are that great. But what about those who feel they are sim­ply imposters and as bad actors as Shake­speare wrote: “life that Frets and struts it’s life away on stage.”

  • Lisa Van Raalte says:

    Did the researchers con­trol for gen­der?

  • Starry Gordon says:

    i have trou­ble believ­ing that the very com­plex sub­ject of human capac­i­ties and abil­i­ties can be accu­rate­ly judged with the usu­al meth­ods for mea­sur­ing such things (for exam­ple, IQ tests). I would have to look at the orig­i­nal test­ing pro­to­cols and results, which aren’t giv­en here, to make that judge­ment. The favorite use of Dun­ning-Kruger in the pop­u­lar cul­ture is to put down oth­er peo­ple on social media which makes the the­o­ry very pop­u­lar, but does not make it even approx­i­mate­ly right. It could be that D‑K fell afoul of the very phe­nom­e­non they were try­ing to study.

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