Dr Johnson: Dunning-Kruger Effect

Has it ever seemed to you that less competent people rate their competence higher than it actually is, while more competent people humbly rate theirs lower?

It’s not just your imagination. This is a genuine cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

The Dunning-Kruger experiments behind the research focused on cognitive tasks (logic, grammar, and evaluating humor), but similar disparities exist in other areas. In self-assessment of IQ, below average people overestimated their score and those above average underestimated (the Downing effect). Studies of healthy and unhealthy behaviors are handicapped when they rely on self-reporting because test subjects tend to improve their evaluation. In self-evaluations of driving ability, job performance, and even immunity to bias, we tend to polish our image.

This is the Lake Wobegone effect—the town where “all the children are above average.”

Notice that there are two different categories of error:

(1) the error where there is a preferred answer and everyone (apparently) is biased toward giving that answer (“How much snack food do you eat?” or “How popular would you say you are?” or “How good a driver are you?”) and

(2) the error where bias changes depending on actual competence, with the less and more competent groups rating themselves too high and too low, respectively.

Let’s look at the second category, where the two extremes make opposite errors. The results of the Dunning-Kruger research hypothesizes that the competent overestimate others’ skill levels. But the error is more complicated for the incompetent—they overestimate their own skill level and they lack the metacognition to realize their error. In other words, they were too incompetent to recognize their own incompetence. Improving their metacognitive skills drove down their self-assessment scores as they became better evaluators of their own limitations.

The original paper was titled, “Unskilled and Unaware of It,” for which the authors won an Ig Nobel Prize in 2000.

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge:
it is those who know little, not those who know much,
who so positively assert that this or that problem
will never be solved by science.
— Charles Darwin (The Descent of Man, 1871)

Photo credit: Martin Beek

  • http://exconvert.blogspot.com Kacy

    The old saying, “Scio me nihil scire or scio me nescire,” comes to mind. Roughly translated: Wisest is he who knows what he does not know.

  • RandomFunction2

    To Bob S,

    A related effect, in my life, is that the more I learn, the more reluctant I am to commit my thoughts to writing (in a paper or a book). It seems to me that whatever I may write, it would still be grossly imperfect.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Are you becoming more critical of your own work?

      My suggestion (for what it’s worth): commit your thoughts to a .doc file of your own with no intention of showing it to anyone. Focus on collecting thoughts and then periodically go through the mass of uncorrelated notes and sort them. That is, find out what you’re saying after you say it.

      If it serves simply to clarify your ideas, that’s purpose enough. If it turns into material for a blog or article or book, so be it.

  • Arkenaten

    When I first began researching monotheism and Christianity in particular I would get so excited when I came across something I had never realised before and had the nasty habit of assuming I was the first to realise this (whatever this was…RFLMAO) How naive!
    Now I am still thrilled when I discover something – like your take on John the Baptist – but the frustration increases tenfold with each new thing uncovered.
    Rene Salm’s expose on Nazareth and Prof Herzog’s take on Moses are cases in point. And I am invariably left wondering, “Don’t these religious folk read the same books as I? ” and I also wonder how the hell the church got away with it – and still does for their god’s sake.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Big Price is a big fan of Salm’s book on Nazareth.

      That the lay Christian doesn’t get it is one thing. But the real puzzle in my mind is how the trained theologians are able to get out of bed every morning and do their thing. Sure, some are charlatains, but I imagine that most are honest people who really believe this stuff. And yet, they know about all these warts in the Jesus story, don’t they?

      • Arkenaten

        One would assume they do know. Your take on the Crucifixion is an excellent example; one I have also tied myself up in knots over for a while. So how do theologians get around this ‘God killed God then brought himself to life issue?’
        It is the type of philosophical conundrum that will soon have one on drugs.
        Is/Are there any Christians/branch of Christianity that do not acknowledge the Resurrection do you know?

        And if you have not read any of Salm’s ‘Nazareth’ I recommend it.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Thanks for the book tip. It’s in my to-be-read pile. Do you think it’s good scholarship?

          I suppose the Unitarian/Universalists are so flexible that they wouldn’t care much about the Resurrection. But I think it’s pretty essential to most of the rest.