The Psychology of incompetence: an analysis of the Dunning-Kruger effect

The Psychology of incompetence: an analysis of the Dunning-Kruger effect

Charles Darwin wrote in his book The Descent of Man, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”


Not being the best at everything or not having the competency to do everything is not something to be shy about; all of us go through it, no one is perfect. However, something that underlies all of this, something that we often don’t even realize is, that, we’re indulging while overselling our competence to perform a particular skill – The Dunning-Kruger Effect.

This article will mainly focus on why incompetent people often overestimate how good they are at a skill, are often unresponsive to feedbacks that say otherwise, and how to subsequently deal with and accept this incompetency in a constructive manner.

To begin with, a brief explanation of what the Dunning-Kruger effect is and how the two social psychologists- David Dunning and Justin Kruger- arrived at this conclusion. The Dunning-Kruger effect is described as a cognitive bias due to which people with restricted knowledge and competence in a particular domain- be it intellectual, social or otherwise- often overestimate their competency in that particular field in comparison to objective criteria or a standard of performance that is agreed upon as average, above average and below average.

In their paper “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments” (1999), Dunning and Kruger tested the abilities of four groups of young adults in domains like humor, logic, and grammar. The results of the study turned out to support how incompetent people will not only inflate their own competency relative to objective criteria, but also that these people are more likely to also not realize the genuine skill in other people. The study in its essence implies that people who experience this effect lack the metacognitive skills i.e. the capacity to think about one’s own thinking processes and competencies in skills, that are required for them to acknowledge that they have performed poorly. Due to not having insight into their poor performance or incompetence, people usually are not in a position to also realize what an actual objective criteriafor competence is and that they’re not meeting it.

To prove how this concept has existed for a long time and was not just coined in the 20th century, let’s take the example of People who believed that the earth is flat and often reject and deem all evidence and satellite pictures provided by NASA that prove otherwise, as mere conspiracy theories. Thinking that the earth feels and looks flat to the layman’s eyes has convinced proponents of the flat earth theory to believe that government agencies and NASA are running a conspiracy theory; qualifying themselves to be smarter than actual experts and professionals. 

Which brings us to the next question: why do professionals and people competent in a particular skill don’t experience the Dunning-Kruger effect for that activity?

It’s the simple concept of the knowledge, of knowing what knowledge you don’t acquire, and knowing that you can improve in whatever activity you do. The more you know, the less confident you are about your abilities. When experts and experienced professionals in a field often go back to their performance from previous experiences or observe the progress they’ve gained over the years they realize that there is still a vast amount of knowledge they don’t possess but can if they are willing to learn.

To make a more ground level analogy, when you look at your progress in the English language profiency from 3rd grade to 12th grade, you realize that you’ve acquired a more elaborate vocabulary and you speak more fluently than you used to, having practicing and learning for 9 years; but still realize that you’re not perfect at it and maybe you still make small grammatical errors. The knowledge of knowing that you still make mistakes and being open to learn from them is what differentiates a professional from a person in the illusion of the Dunning-Kruger effect. A person experiencing this effect will remain in a self created bubble, creating a far more appealing self perception of themselves than it actually is.

However, this also goes ahead to imply that all people at all times experience this effect for different activities. So, a professional might not face it for the skill he’s mastered, but might face it for some other skill. For example, a stunt performer might not face the Dunning-Kruger for performing stunts but maybe for writing, which he might be incompetent in.

Why do people unconsciously go through the Dunning-Kruger effect?

There are several reasons why people unconsciously create an unbreakable bubble of superior self perception which prevents them from expanding their knowledge in a particular field while also being overconfident in their current knowledge.

First, according to Dunning, people experiencing the Dunning-Kruger effect face a dual burden – not only do they don’t have the competence to perform a task well, they also lack the meta cognition to realize it. Because of this, people often evaluate their performance not in comparison to a standard metric of progress, but through their own subjective biases about their capabilities, which makes them believe that they are above average, despite evidence proving otherwise.

Second, whenever people gain knowledge about something or learn a new skill, it often feels like the limited information we have acquired within a restricted period of time is enough for us to become a competent performer of that skill, which in reality is far from true. The reason why most professionals are realize the need to keep up with the developments in their skill or are willing to continue to educate themselves on it is because they realize that while they’re professionals, there is still so much they don’t know.

Third, in my opinion, is because of the natural fear of rejection or being told that we are not good enough. While it is completely justified for people to feel a little defensive about their abilities and their deficits being pointed out, as a consequence of this fear, it also unconsciously transcends into people acting the complete opposite of what they might actually be afraid of and thereby ignoring their incompetence by believing they are above average. This is exactly why people experiencing this effect also are unwilling to improve themselves or don’t take criticism constructively. It then becomes important to give feedback and constructive in a manner in which they don’t feel attacked.

Despite being present in all of us to some extent, there are a few shortcomings of the effect like, it not being applicable to all realms of life that a person experiences. For example, the Dunning-Kruger effect would not be applicable to a field skill like baking because if a person is objectively below average at it, their incompetence would be starkly clear in the end result that would be produced and how it would taste. It would not require extensive research and testing to prove that a person is an incompetent baker.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is largely, a harmless effect which doesn’t spiral out of control. However, it becomes dangerous when people who surround you are too scared to give you an honest criticism, especially when you are in a position of power and responsible for multiple layers of people affected by your skill or decision making process. 

The only rational option left with people to then overcome this effect is to constantly try to better ourselves by gaining more knowledge about concepts and skills and surround ourselves with people who would give us constructive criticism. It is important to maintain an open mind about people pointing out your mistakes and to accept that being above average in every single thing that you venture into is practically impossible.  However, it becomes imperative to realize that aside from the feedback receiver being open minded, the person who gives the feedback to the person should also be cautious so as to target the behavior of an individual and not their personality characteristics at large. It’s also important to follow up to any feedback provided to ensure that the need for them to improve in professional settings is elicited, while also maintaining a cordial and healthy approach to express it.

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