Early in my career, I worked as a commercial pilot and flight instructor outside of Philadelphia.  My fellow pilots and I always discussed a phenomenon where new pilots were over-confident and thought they knew everything, while more experienced pilots knew that learning and improvement never ceased. The saying that typically accompanied this discussion was, “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots; but there are no old, bold pilots.”  Little did I know that this phenomenon had a name and was applicable in every industry:

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

In 1999, psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger conducted a study they called “Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.” They researched why individuals make poor choices and are unaware that they have done so. 

Dunning & Kruger concluded that those with a small amount of experience believe that their abilities are greater than they are in reality.  Basically, a small amount of knowledge/experience can be harmful because they tend to think they have more knowledge than they truly possess, which in turn drives them to make bad decisions. 

Dunning and Kruger theorize that the cause of this effect is a “dual burden:” “People are not only incompetent; their incompetence robs them of the mental ability to realize just how inept they are.”

Dunning-Kruger proposed that, for a certain skill or knowledge set, “incompetent” people will:

  1. Fail to recognize their own lack of knowledge or skill;
  2. Fail to recognize the extent of their inadequacy;
  3. Fail to recognize the genuine knowledge or skill in others;
  4. Only recognize and acknowledge their own lack of knowledge or skill when educated otherwise.

Dunning notes, “The knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task—and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at that task.”

Who can fall victim to the Dunning-Kruger Effect?

Kendra Cherry of the website verywellmind.com writes, “So who is affected by the Dunning-Kruger effect? Unfortunately, we all are. This is because no matter how informed or experienced we are, everyone has areas in which they are uninformed and incompetent. You might be smart and skilled in many areas, but no one is an expert at everything.

“The reality is that everyone is susceptible to this phenomenon, and in fact, most of us probably experience it with surprising regularity. People who are genuine experts in one area may mistakenly believe that their intelligence and knowledge carry over into other areas in which they are less familiar. A brilliant scientist, for example, might be a very poor writer. In order for the scientist to recognize their own lack of skill, they need to possess a good working knowledge of things such as grammar and composition. Because those are lacking, the scientist in this example also lacks the ability to recognize their own poor performance.”

How can we overcome the Dunning-Kruger Effect?

“Dunning and Kruger suggest that as experience with a subject increases, confidence typically declines to more realistic levels. As people learn more about the topic of interest, they begin to recognize their own lack of knowledge and ability. Then as people gain more information and actually become experts on a topic, their confidence levels begin to improve once again.”

  1. Understand how you react to constructive criticism. 
    This simple quiz at leadershipiq.com will help you determine the answer to this question.
  2. Go into performance reviews with an open mind. 
    Now that you are aware of this effect, you will hopefully be better equipped to digest and analyze your performance review.
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask others “How am I doing?”  
  4. Whatever you do, do it well! 
    We should always strive to continue learning; never assume that you know everything about a given topic. The more you learn about that subject, the more you will understand how much you don’t know.

verywellmind.com sums up this topic perfectly:

The Dunning-Kruger effect is one of many cognitive biases that can affect your behaviors and decisions, from the mundane to the life-changing. While it may be easier to recognize the phenomenon in others, it is important to remember that it is something that impacts everyone. By understanding the underlying causes that contribute to this psychological bias, you might be better able to spot these tendencies in yourself and find ways to overcome them.”

I hope this subject was as fascinating for you as it was for me!

-Steve Pruitt, President/CEO of Bankers Crossing

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