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