The Dunning-Kruger Effect and the secret for coping with the incompetents around you

There’s nothing more exasperating than being an expert and having to deal with someone who isn’t but is quite certain he or she is. I experience this frequently and I know you do too. And guess what? There’s actually a name for it: the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Wikipedia defines the Dunning-Kruger Effect like this: “… the phenomenon wherein people who have little knowledge think that they know more than others who have much more knowledge.”

Sound familiar?

Here’s a good example. Long ago I was interviewing for an ad agency job in Las Vegas. When the guy who owned the small agency found out I was interested in direct response, he began explaining to me that no headline should ever, EVER, be more than seven words. Seven was the magic number. And the magic number was seven. Six, maybe. Sometimes five. But never eight. And certainly not nine. 10 was right out.

When I asked him why, he took on the air of superiority that I didn’t have a name for then and repeated that seven words were magic.

Yup, Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Here’s another example. I was hired by an agency in my home town to consult on an AARP mailing. (I’m not picking on agencies. These are the just the examples that come to mind.) In routine fashion, I analyzed past mailings and determined that, among other things, the most successful direct mail packages used re-positionable tokens. You know, the little stickers that you can remove from one part of a mailer and affix to another part, usually onto the reply form. They often are printed with the words “Yes” or “I accept” or something similar.

During my conversation with the art director, I informed him about the conclusions of my analysis and suggested we create a package with a token. We were walking down the hall toward his office when I said that. He stopped, turned, and with a face that looked like he had just stepped in something foul, said, “We don’t DO stickers. They’re tacky.” He was firm on this and forbade tokens, handwriting, typewriter fonts, starbursts, and a variety of other tactics.

Dunning-Kruger Effect.

So what exactly is this Dunning-Kruger Effect? Well, these two guys named David Dunning and Justin Kruger, both working at Cornell University, ran a series of experiments and published the results in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in December 1999.

What they found was that, and I quote, “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” Specifically they concluded:

  1. Incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their own level of skill.
  2. Incompetent individuals fail to recognize genuine skill in others.
  3. Incompetent individuals fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy.
  4. If they can be trained to substantially improve their own skill level, these individuals can recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill.

Source: Wikipedia

Can you see the irony here? Those with the least knowledge and the lowest level of skill tend to be the most confident. And who do people look to for leadership? Those with confidence. So we are destined to be led by the incompetent. Aren’t we? I see it in advertising and marketing. Everyone sees it in politics. It happens in schools (those who can’t, teach). It’s everywhere.

And do you really believe that last point, that those who are incompetent can be trained to be competent and realize their previous incompetence? Hmm. I’m not sure about that.

I don’t have a solution for this. But I do have a suggestion. Whenever this happens to you, I want you to take a deep breath and say, “Dunning-Kruger Effect.” Don’t explain. Just say it and walk away. The ninny won’t know what it means and will be too stupid to look it up.

But you’ll feel a whole lot better.

We won’t call it an inside joke. Let’s call it healthy coping.

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18 Responses to “The Dunning-Kruger Effect and the secret for coping with the incompetents around you”

  1. web design , almog on February 15th, 2008 9:15 pm

    I love this post,its just great I have had the same effect when working with “art directors” , And all I have to say is they have no idea when it comes to web. “stay with choosing color” let the rest of the stuff get done by web pro’s.

  2. SlipInSanity on March 29th, 2008 8:56 pm

    Great post. Never heard of this before, but I have seen it in people far more often than I would like to.

  3. Thorney on April 15th, 2008 3:11 pm

    Hmm… I just called it “Farva Syndrome” (Super Troopers, you’ll get it.)

    A guy I know used to be 31 flavors of incompetent with computers in my Computer Repair class, but he’d maintain that not only did he know what he was doing, but that the rest of us didn’t have a clue.

    We gave him the nickname “Farva” for that one, and its stuck with him into the Navy (3 years… wow…)

    “PFC Farva, reporting as ordered, sir!”

  4. David on April 17th, 2008 11:52 am

    The way I read point 4 was that the people who could be trained could recognize their previous incompetence. This doesn’t mean that all incompetent people can be trained.

  5. Erik on July 13th, 2008 8:03 am

    I think your blog demonstrates the effect better than the examples of the people you cite as incompetent. It would have helped your case to demonstrate what competent people can do instead of only pointing out what your self-assessed competence led you to write. I don’t disagree with your premise that it is a way to better understand annoying people who might not understand your level of knowledge in your particular skill set, but you are missing the other half of the study done by Dunning and Kruger.

    “In short, the same knowledge that underlies
    the ability to produce correct judgment [the best way to direct market] is also the knowledge that underlies the ability to recognize correct judgment.[to know why their reason's for objecting to your ideas were errant] To lack the
    former is to be deficient in the latter.

    So ultimately, it is ignorance and not arrogance that the study uncovered regarding incompetent’s difficulties in recognizing their own incompetence which leads to inflated self-assessments.

  6. Ben Buchanan on July 17th, 2009 8:36 am

    I think the Dunning-Kruger effect can be a good thing sometimes! It protects us from hating ourselves. I’m not sure if i would want to knoow all my short falls!
    Here is a good video about it:

  7. Lukas Kaiser on August 12th, 2009 11:03 pm

    None of your examples are the Dunning-Kruger Effect. You’re just using Dunning-Kruger as a means to pad your own ego against people who dared disagree with you.

  8. Dean Rieck on August 13th, 2009 12:21 am

    Gosh. You sure put me in my place. Though you might consider that it’s not ego when you have the expertise to know that those who disagree with you are actually wrong. :)

  9. DF on August 14th, 2009 11:50 am

    These examples might be the DK effect or they might not. It’s certainly true that clinging to a simplistic rule in the face of reasons to the contrary may indicate overconfidence in one’s competence. If these people were incapable of having a reasoned discussion in which they successfully defended their assertions, but clung to those assertions nevertheless, that would likely be a good example of the DK effect. We just need a bit more evidence.

    What’s particularly tricky about the DK effect is that those suffering from it are most likely to attribute it to others. Remember, one of D&K’s findings in their initial study was that highly competent people tend to assume others are equally competent, while the incompetent tend to assume others are inferior. So if you go around constantly invoking the DK effect w/r/t others’ behavior, you just might be exhibiting it yourself.

  10. Dean Rieck on August 14th, 2009 12:03 pm

    In the direct marketing field, techniques are judged by mathematics. Knowing which techniques work and which don’t is a matter of experience with the actual results of testing. So if I suggest a technique that has been proven by numerical results and it is rejected without logical evidence but merely on an assumption or because of personal taste, I think that qualifies as a good example of DK.

  11. Sax on September 17th, 2009 2:53 pm

    Only one name comes to mind, “OBAMA”.

  12. DF on December 16th, 2009 5:17 pm

    Dean Rieck: “if I suggest a technique that has been proven by numerical results and it is rejected without logical evidence but merely on an assumption or because of personal taste, I think that qualifies as a good example of DK.”

    Yes, I think this is right. I didn’t see that kind of exchange happening in the first example in your blog. If you said to the interviewer, “Actually, extensive and credible statistical studies show that there is no ‘magic number’ for determining the most effective headline,” and he simply responded by repeating himself, then his response seems to indicate the D-K effect. But merely asserting a confident conclusion doesn’t mean you lack reasons, and my reading of the first interaction in your blog doesn’t indicate that a substantive conversation took place. But then again, I may be wrong; your description may have left this information out.

    More generally, I’m skeptical that the D-K effect should be used as a means of reaffirming one’s own superiority in the world. The ironies of the D-K effect are many, but among them is that the less skilled you are, the more likely you are to think that others are inferior. I worry that the increasing popularity of the D-K effect will actually do much to reaffirm the confidence of unskilled people in their own illusory greatness.

  13. SL on December 17th, 2009 10:39 am

    Used to work for a guy just like this. When he was hired, several of us “less confident” people commented on his apparent lack of knowledge and skill. He revised monthly internal reporting requirements nearly every month. Just didn’t know what he was doing, or what data needed to be reported. He managed to lay-off the majority of us (best thing that ever happened to me!) before the company president realized his mistake, and gave the guy the treatment he deserved.

  14. GS on March 15th, 2010 7:30 pm

    DF : “I worry that the increasing popularity of the D-K effect will actually do much to reaffirm the confidence of unskilled people in their own illusory greatness”.

    I consent with the above comment. I think Dr. Dunning and Dr. Kruger just invented another word in the dictonary of people who like to call names on the ability of others, but ofcourse without checking on themselves first. I have an impression that this phrase “Dunning-Kruger effect” should be nominated as the best ironical term of the milinium.

  15. Drew on August 5th, 2010 5:16 pm

    Here’s another opinion for “likely not D-K effect.” Both of those examples sound to me like someone using a different rubric for judgment rather than assuming superiority. Of course I don’t have all the details, but from what you said, the first case could be, but the second case sounds like an artist judging something based on its artistic merits, which caused him to differ on your judgment which was based on mathematical models of effectiveness.

    Even in the first case, I am not sure that simply being firm in your opinion demonstrates D-K effect. It may well have been the opposite– he may have been feeling that, as the boss, he is supposed to know a lot about the subject, but he doesn’t. All the same, his opinion may come from someone he respects– perhaps a professor in college was insistent that 7 words is the maximum number. When challenged, you assume he feels superior to you and therefore won’t listen to your opinion, but isn’t it quite possible that he’s thinking “darn it, I don’t remember why I was taught to do it this way, and I really wish I did… but all the same, I trust my professor over this new guy. I’m not going to let him force his opinion on me simply because he spews some jargon/math at me.”

    Maybe I only think that because of my own experiences–I have this feeling a lot, and it’s a very sinking feeling. Someone I don’t know very well, whose opinion I have not yet come to trust, is telling me that something I learned elsewhere is wrong. Of course, I take such challenges seriously, but there are some circumstances where I forget the explanation, but I remember where I learned the info, and I feel that just because I’m not smart enough to defend the information I have doesn’t mean that this guy is right… maybe if my professor or source of information were here, they could defend their own point.

    Most of what I learn, I have to accept with a great deal of faith. I’m training to be a veterinarian, and while sure, I can superficially understand some chemical process (this enzyme regulates that enzyme which carries out this procedure), it doesn’t mean I can really say (beyond what I’ve experienced or memorized) whether that would hold true in specific cases or circumstances. It would be foolish for me to assume that my grasp on the concepts is so strong that just by reasoning through it, I can determine what would happen in a novel situation (although it may be my best guess.)

    It’s lucky for me that I don’t have to be a boss yet, because I don’t have to *tell* people that I’m not accepting their opinion. When a breeder or classmate tells me something that goes against what a professor says, and supports it with a good argument, I make a note to look in to it later, but for the time being I almost always stick with what I know, assuming I trusted the source at least as much as I trust my classmate.

  16. Drew on August 5th, 2010 5:20 pm

    I should add, not just classmate or breeder, but even “experts”– if two experts disagree, does it make sense to simply trust the expert who is physically present?

  17. Petey on December 2nd, 2010 5:31 pm

    Couple of points (in my opinion):

    I read the actual study, and I think I understand it. It’s not about superiority, or criteria. It describes how that person views their level of expertise. So, in the first example, if there was a level of expertise in reality, the 7-word guy would have said “There have been studies …” or “I heard a woman speak about it a month ago …” or something. The fact that he “knew” this to be true is a reflection of his own level of belief in himself, and seems to me to be innacurate, because as a copywriter, his statement seems to fly in the face of my experience (not an expert, but hope to be someday).

    In the second case, sticker man just has a personal preference. If I heard something like “It’s obvious that people hate stickers, they are much less effective because they are really clumsy,” I would attribute that to the DK effect. That guy is just an ahole client. If, after hearing the expert opinion, he persisted that he was right, that’s more DK to me.

    As far as the “two experts”, not sure why the writer seems so angry, but I would think that you would listen to both experts and base your decision on which one makes more sense in the specific case you are pondering.

    To reiterate, this has nothing to do with “feeling superior.” It’s about perception of one’s level of expertise.

    Here’s a novel idea: read the study before you make up your mind. Becasue it’s pretty short, easy to read, and very clear.

    In my opinion.

  18. Janet Fitch on June 23rd, 2011 5:57 am

    I know a person who is exactly this. He went to sign on to a computer course and came away saying “I know more about the computer than the teacher does” now some years later he still has no concept of “Word, Excel, Access” etc he uses the most fantastic wordprocessor (his words) and its called Notepad. Before I retired I was a lecturer in IT and Business Administration and he tells me what the computer can do This is very restricted in his knowledge because he is completly unware of his ignorance. One last thing he used to be a Porter in a Chest Hospital, and his claims over the years about his role have been unbelievable the latest one being “I have assisted in a Heart operation” and he expects the people around him to believe it

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