2 min read

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger examined why people seemed to be so unable to recognize their own incompetence.

The behavior was noticed when participants in studies broke the laws of mathematics; for example, at one company, 32% of engineers self-evaluated themselves as being in the top 5% of performers while 42% at another company rated themselves as being in the top 5%.

At the risk of oversimplifying their findings, Dunning and Kruger found two main takeaways:

  1. Those who are incompetent in some area (and we are all incompetent in some areas) lack the competence to even recognize their incompetence.  Therefore, they tend to overestimate their own skills.
    • Example: I’ve never learned to play the trumpet, and because I know so little about the instrument or musical theory in general, I can’t even comprehend just how little I do know. And so while I know I’m not very good, I may rate my abilities higher than I should.
  2. Conversely, those who are very competent tend to overestimate the skill of others. Because they are so competent in an area, they incorrectly assume that others must be equally or nearly equally as competent.
    • Example: I’ve spent a fair amount of time studying marketing and idea validation, but I frequently underestimate just how much more knowledge I have in those subjects relative to most other individuals.

A few days ago, a good friend of mine was talking about how humble all of the brilliant people he’s privileged to be working with now are. And that’s probably the manifestation The Dunning-Kruger effect.

Those smart and talented individuals are competent enough to recognize that there is still a lot they don’t know about their disciplines, and so they find humility in their position. And, because they are also biased to assume others are more competent than they actually are, they do not perceive their own relative brilliance (underestimating themselves while overestimating others).

Both sides of the Dunning-Krudger effect are almost certainly impacting you right now. How can you curb it’s effect?

  1. Ask for (and listen to) feedback. You don’t know what you don’t know, and if you could see your own blind spots, they wouldn’t be blind spots.
  2. In your areas of expertise, don’t discount your own abilities. While there is still a lot to learn, there are a ton of people you can help reach your own level of understanding.

PS: Here’s a great video explaining the Dunning-Kruger effect