The Dunning-Kruger Effect- Story of many!

In the field of psychology, the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people with low ability at a task overestimate their ability. It is related to the cognitive bias of illusory superiority and comes from the inability of people to recognize their lack of ability.

During my childhood, I heard about a couple of proverbs

  1. A Little learning is a dangerous thing
  2. Speech is silver, Silence is Golden.

At that time, I was unable to perceive its meaning and how such simple proverbs can be interpreted in ways beyond the imagination of a 12 year old.

So, how is “a little learning a dangerous thing”? It isn’t, necessarily, but it certainly can be. If you take a one-hour driving class at the nearest driving school and think that you are “almost as good and fit” to drive in an emergency situation as an ambulance driver —— you are likely to kill somebody if you ever get the chance, either on the road or the patient in the ambulance needing immediate medical attention.

On the other hand, if you do yoga three times a year and think you’re the worst at it, who really cares?

The danger, obviously, lies in the consequences of over-estimating your relative ability.

Though they appear to be related, the Dunning–Kruger effect studied not intelligence but rather Metacognition, specifically, overestimating and even underestimating one’s own competence in certain specific cognitive tests (ability to recognize humor, logical reasoning and grammar ).

Metacognition is the name given to the process by which we evaluate our own knowledge and reasoning, the process of knowing what we know and what we don’t know.

Awareness of one’s own incompetence at a particular task requires the very expertise that’s lacking. As David Dunning himself puts it:-

“For poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack.”

Unfortunately and tellingly it’s been all too easily overlooked that the Dunning-Kruger effect showed not just the incompetent vastly overestimating their prowess but also the exceptionally competent modestly underestimating theirs.

“We have argued that unskilled individuals suffer a dual burden: Not only do they perform poorly, but they fail to realize it. It thus appears that extremely competent individuals suffer a burden as well. Although they perform competently, they fail to realize that their proficiency is not necessarily shared by their peers.”

Such underestimating of their competence by the exceptionally competent somewhat resembles the Impostor syndrome though psychologists appear to not link these two phenomena.

While the Dunning-Kruger effect seems to have seeped into collective consciousness with respect to attributes that often haven’t even been formally tested for this effect and also appears to have become a convenient cudgel some use to mock others deemed less intelligent, its broader implications have received short shrift.

One would hope that assimilating a more expansive appreciation of the Dunning-Kruger effect would spur humility since only the vanishingly rare among us are or become exceptionally competent at each and every thing we attempt.

Now the question remains, how do we evaluate ourselves?

If we are not competent, then our evaluation is highly likely to be at the other end of the spectrum of reality. If we are competent, then there lies the risk of undermining one’s own capabilities. Finding that balance is key.

As said in Bhagawad Gita ;-

shri bhagavan uvacha
asanshayam maha-baho mano durnigraham chalam
abhyasena tu kaunteya vairagyena cha grihyate

Meaning: “The perturbations of the mind can be controlled by constant practice and detachment.”

As the originators of the Dunning-Kruger effect themselves point out with a quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson.

He who knows best best knows how little he knows.”



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