What Is The Dunning-Kruger Effect And Why Does It Matter?

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox
Updated December 13, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Many people have experienced or witnessed overconfidence in ability followed by disastrous failure. From someone believing they have the skill to fix their plumbing on their own only to cause significantly more damage to an overconfident entrepreneur starting a business only to go bankrupt months later, examples of overconfidence paired with incompetence are common in daily life. 

This phenomenon is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Read on to learn more about the effect, how it can influence your judgment or behavior, and how you can overcome this perception flaw.

Is The Dunning-Kruger Effect Negatively Impacting Your Life?

What Is The Dunning-Kruger Effect?

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias or systematic error in thinking that influences a person’s judgments and decisions and may lead them to misinterpret the information they have to reach inaccurate conclusions.

It was named for psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, who published their work on the psychological phenomenon in 1999 after conducting a study measuring perceived ability versus actual performance. The study revealed a cognitive bias that often leads people to overestimate their capability or knowledge, especially in areas where they are not experienced. 

How Incompetence Can Be A Cognitive Bias

When people are unaware of their ignorance, they may believe themselves more competent than they actually are, according to the Dunning-Kruger effect. Studies show that underperformers tend to overestimate their abilities, while the opposite is often true for high performers. 

“People are typically overly optimistic when evaluating the quality of their performance on social and intellectual tasks. In particular, poor performers grossly overestimate their performances because their incompetence deprives them of the skills needed to recognize their deficits,” said Dunning, Kruger, and co-authors in a 2009 paper about cognitive bias and self-insight.

According to Dunning and Kruger, poor performers may overestimate their performance ability because they lack the skills to understand their incompetence. Simply put, they don’t know what they don’t know. This flaw in reasoning is seen across many areas, from uninformed political arguments and amateur medical research to gambling and art restoration. 

How The Dunning-Kruger Effect Can Impact Behavior 

When your perception of your performance doesn’t match your actual ability, you may be experiencing the Dunning-Kruger effect. Have you ever walked confidently out of a test to learn you failed miserably or left a job interview expecting a call to wait for word fruitlessly? Researchers examined how this cognitive bias can impact behavior in numerous areas. 

Medicine

The Dunning-Kruger effect was observed among graduate medical students in a 2020 paper studying perceived performance rates compared to peer assessments and actual execution. The research showed that those with lower success rates tended to give themselves higher scores than their ability warranted. Physicians in the bottom 25% were also observed to reject feedback more often or deem it unhelpful or incorrect. 

Business

The cognitive bias of the effect has been seen in the business setting through employees who are confident at hiring but unable to meet the requirements of their positions, have trouble accepting and implementing constructive criticism, promotions of unqualified individuals over more expert staff due to confidence over capability, and the spread of inaccurate information. This may lead to poor business decisions that could affect the performances of other team members or the effectiveness of the whole staff. 

Politics

Studies show that people who could gain the most benefit from questioning their political belief systems are also those most likely to believe they are correct and resist efforts to change their thinking patterns. 

The Dunning-Kruger effect is also seen in people with extreme political beliefs about complex policies, though they are often unable to explain those policies in detail, a 2013 study showed. 

Driving

You likely know someone who believes they are a much better driver than they are. This is the Dunning-Kruger effect in action. While statistically, only half of all drivers could possibly be better than average, one study showed that 673 of 909 drivers rated themselves as “better than average." However, the researchers did note that each person's definition of “good driving” was subjective. 

Incompetent Cognitive Bias And Cultural Effects

Due to cultural differences, the Dunning-Kruger effect may be more prevalent in some areas. For example, humility is an important factor in some Eastern societies, while confidence is a valued trait in many Western cultures. A 2021 study measured the intercultural competence of employees in the tourism and hospitality industry and found that many employees had a low-performance level and exaggerated their intercultural awareness. 

Who Is Susceptible To The Dunning-Kruger Effect?

It is important to note that anyone can be affected by this particular cognitive bias; the effect is not a reflection of deficient intelligence but rather a lack of insight and a proper measure of one’s skills. Knowledge of a subject doesn’t necessarily correlate to ability, and it can be easy to overestimate how well you can perform. 

Intellectual humility, or the ability to accept that you may not be correct about your ideas and attitudes, can make it less like to overestimate your abilities, according to a 2021 study. While intellectual humility was linked to the tendency to underestimate performance, it was unrelated to actual capability. 

Is The Dunning-Kruger Effect Negatively Impacting Your Life?

Overcoming The Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect may lead you to underestimate yourself or face disappointment after overconfidence. It can be challenging to change your thought patterns and overcome cognitive bias, but it can be done. Challenging your perception of your abilities and self-awareness may yield benefits in other areas as you improve how you interact with others. 

Here are some tips to overcome the Dunning-Kruger effect.

  • Accept and implement constructive criticism. Feedback can be a valuable tool for guidance as you seek to bolster your abilities. Rather than feeling threatened, use the advice for personal and professional development. If you aren’t sure the feedback is fair, take a step back and reflect on your actions or performance before reacting. 

  • Challenge what you “know” about your abilities. Examine the things you believe without question with a more critical eye. Consistently revisit your beliefs as your world changes and evaluate whether you still hold the same ideas as truth. 

  • Take time to make choices. Making decisions may feel like a confident, decisive action, but it can often be a snap judgment based on faulty thinking. Accept your mistakes, learn from them, and move forward to do better next time. 

  • Learn from your failures. One of the most effective ways to overcome the Dunning-Kruger effect is to try things and fail. Experience may help you form a more realistic view of your abilities. 

  • Use varied reasoning strategies. Applying the same logic to every problem you face will likely give you a one-dimensional worldview. Attempt new approaches to your problem-solving and reasoning, and you may break free from negative patterns. 

How Therapy Can Help You Become More Self-Aware

Many people believe they perform better than they do. If you frequently find yourself disappointed when expecting a positive review or fail to accomplish something you thought you could do well, consider speaking to a therapist to overcome cognitive bias about your skills. Virtual sessions are becoming increasingly popular through online therapy platforms like BetterHelp. Clients frequently say they like the reduced wait times, lower costs, and flexibility of appointment formats. 

Many therapists have used cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as a helpful tool to recognize and correct unhealthy or harmful habits and make the shift toward positive life changes. According to recent studies, online CBT can be as effective as in-person treatments, and younger patients who are more comfortable in the online setting show higher success rates. 

Takeaway

It can be hard to realize that the way you think may be negatively influencing your life. The information provided in this article may make it easier to recognize your own cognitive bias, examine whether your performance issues may be related to the Dunning-Kruger effect or some other cause, and decide to commit to improving and learning to judge your performance accurately.

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