“Clowns to the left of me, jokers on the right.” Ever had that feeling?
There’s a name for the cause of that feeling: The Dunning-Kruger Effect.
The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes
Where did we first start calling it the Dunning Kruger Effect? After this paper in 1999:
Kruger, Justin; Dunning, David
People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it. Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although their test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd. Several analyses linked this miscalibration to deficits in metacognitive skill, or the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error. Paradoxically, improving the skills of the participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
Others had noted the effect earlier, but described a bit differently, or failed to set up experiments to confirm it as Dunning and Kruger did. If you watch, you’ll see it all around you.
Bertrand Russell observed eight decades ago:
The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure
and the intelligent are full of doubt.
– Bertrand Russell, The Triumph of Stupidity in Mortals and Others: Bertrand Russell’s American Essays, 1931-1935 (Routledge, 1998), p. 28
We see it here, at the bathtub, with the occasional e-mail objecting that Millard Fillmore did, in fact, put the first bathtub in the White House. The e-mail will suggest we should read some history books to see. Or, we’ll see a lot of it in the textbook debates at the Texas State Board of Education, with people arguing that they know Darwin recanted, that all fossils are made up, and that DNA is a fiction, because they heard it at Sunday school, and Sunday school teachers would not lie.
Sometimes it’s difficult to separate Dunning-Kruger from just plain old gullibility; and how can we really distinguish it from the (misnamed) Barnum Effect (really, the Forer Effect)?
Sniffing out stupid and humorous, and sometimes malicious, distortions of history, we run into people under the spell of the effect way too often.
I’ve written about it rather randomly here before; this page is put here to pull the resources together in one convenient location.
To understand the effect, and the history, you should see these posts:
- “Quote of the moment: Bertrand Russell, on the Dunning-Kruger Effect, 64 years prescient”
- Jon Wilkins found this cartoon to explain it.
- Graphic version of the Dunning-Kruger effect (yes, it’s a cartoon, too)
- Kin Hubbard and Will Rogers described the practical dangers of the effect in the 1930s
- And the late Librarian of Congress, Daniel Boorstin, explained that intentional Dunning-Kruger Effect can be among the most dangerous — pretending to know what one does not know, often leads to disaster
- Isaac Asimov explained it, too, lamenting the power of ignorance, and the sad trends against knowledge
- Darwin observed the Dunning Kruger Effect, too — but didn’t name it at the time
The “triumph of stupidity.” Avoid it at all costs.
What examples do you have of the Dunning-Kruger effect? Comments are open.
More, and other resources:
- A 2003 paper on the effect, by Dunning and Kruger! in .pdf, from Current Directions in Psychological Science
- Errol Morris interviewed David Dunning in 2010 for the New York Times; no, lemon juice won’t make you invisible to bank surveillance cameras
- CRITICAL THINKING: “Ignorance Begets Confidence: The Dunning-Kruger Effect” (alwaysquestionauthority.com)
- The dunning-kruger effect (Donald Prothero’s article explainging the effect) (skepticblog.org)
- The Power of “I Don’t Know” (accidentalhedonist.com)
- Who you gonna believe, me or you own eyes? (sciencebasedmedicine.org)
- “The classic Dunning-Kruger Effect,” at Psychology Today blogs
- Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, on the “Dunning-Kruger-Madoff Effect” in economic prognostication
- Profile of David Dunning at the Cornell University Psychology Department page
- Profile of Justin Kruger, at the Cornell University Self and Social Insight Lab (SaSI)
- Of course, someone has to come along and say Dunning and Kruger don’t know what they’re talking about: See here, response here; and more discussion here
- [Added January 29, 2014] Brilliant! Explanation of Dunning Kruger Effect, and arguing on blogs, by Gary Farber in a guest post at Obsidian Wings. Four years ago.
- Cornell’s Tumblr points to interview with Dr. Dunning at Reddit, on how to avoid the D-K effect