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Dunning Kruger Effect: How Stupid People Think They Are Amazing

Dunning Kruger Effect: How Stupid People Think They Are Amazing

Does the term Dunning Kruger effect seem complicated? Don’t worry. Let me explain what it means with a true story of a bank robbery.

Dunning Kruger effect

Back in 1995, a man named McArthur Wheeler robbed two banks in Pittsburgh on the same day in broad daylight. What surprised the cops was, the culprit entered the banks and robbed them at gunpoint without any disguise.

The security cameras had captured crystal clear images of his face. In any robbery, thieves wear masks to conceal their identity because the moment police identify the person, arresting them is a cakewalk. McArthur had walked into the bank like a celebrity trotting on a red carpet.

By midnight on the same day, the cops showed up at McArthur’s doors. He was genuinely shocked that the police had identified him. He exclaimed, “But I wore the lemon juice.”

lime juice bank robbery

Guess what? He had recently learned that lemon juice which makes ink on paper invisible, worked on cameras too. But McArthur wasn’t a complete moron. He did not intend to rob a bank without validating the theory. So, he applied some juice on his face and used a Polaroid camera to click a picture of himself. He was shocked to notice that the photo did not capture his face.

No one knows the real reason behind the blank photo. Police speculate possible reasons as a bad film, a camera problem, or a poor camera angle due to his burning eyes. If you’re wondering if he was high, the cops tested McArthur for drugs, and he came out clean.

Though the event stemmed from extreme stupidity, it led to two researchers named Dunning and Kruger to study the bias behind the incident.

This is just one of the many cognitive biases of the human brain. You can visit the index page of all mental biases here.

What is the Dunning Kruger effect?

The Dunning Kruger effect states that when you know only a little about a topic, you tend to think you know a lot. In simple words, the lesser you know about a subject, the higher the overconfidence in your abilities.

The graph below explains how the effect works.

Dunner kruger effect graph

When you know nothing about a topic, you stay away from it because you do not know where to begin. But as soon as you gain a little knowledge of the area, your confidence skyrockets. You believe you know most of what is necessary and consider yourself an expert.

But as you gain more expertise, you slowly start realizing what you lack. Little by little, your overconfidence starts reducing. After you develop the real skills, your confidence starts building up again, but this time for the right reasons as shown by the upward curve.

Let me compare the effect with real life.

Dunner kruger effect simplified

Consider the gap of knowledge as a river to cross with your target on the other side. A person who knows nothing about the dangers of water faces a higher risk, yet has a higher tendency to leap right in. Someone who knows the risk of drowning will jump only if he can handle it.

Real Like examples of the Dunning Kruger effect:

You might have laughed at the foolishness of the bank robbery, but do you think you and I don’t exhibit such behavior? Of course, we do. Sure, we may not be stupid enough to commit a crime, but we exhibit overconfidence in different ways in real life.

1. Delusional participants in reality shows

Bad dancer

Have you watched any reality shows which involve singing, dancing, or any other stage performance? If you have, you must have seen contestants making a fool out of themselves on the stage. If you haven’t watched a TV show, you might have witnessed an example in school, college or a local event.

“How do they muster the guts to go on stage when they’re that bad?” you ask yourself, laughing. The problem is, such people are unaware bad they are. They are at their early stages of the graph shown earlier. They are high on confidence and low on skills.

2. Self-evaluation of your expertise

Let’s do a quick test. What do you do for a living? You might be pursuing a career in sales, IT, management, finance, or human resource. Do you consider yourself below average, average, or above average in your expertise?

Most people consider themselves above average. In reality, those who’re below-average bracket are the ones who believe their skills are above average. You know what’s funny? Despite writing this article, I would still rate myself above average. You and I have a McArthur Wheeler within ourselves.

3. An employee believing he will be a fantastic manager

An employee who has never been a manager considers the role easy. “How hard can leading people be?” they wonder.

Unless you dive into leadership, you will have no idea what challenges are involved. Leading people takes learning and practice, just like any other skill. You need to put in years of training and commit many mistakes before you get it right.

Far too many employees take up leadership only to flatline in their career or get labeled as a jerk by their team members.

4. Conspiracy theory believers

conspiracy theories

Whenever a significant incident occurs around the globe, a conspiracy theory has to pop up. You can take the examples of the 1969 moon landings, the 9/11 terror attack, or the death of a celebrity.

The people who know little about the real facts are the ones who strongly defend the conspiracy theory. Due to the gullibility of the general public and the spiciness of the story, the news spreads like a forest fire.

For example, Russia was keen on getting a man on the moon before the US. If the landings were fake, the Russian scientists would be the first people to cite proof. Yet, not one reputed space scientist challenged the landings.

The conspiracy theory emerged from a writer named Bill Kaysing, who had no background in science. The physics knowledge of people who questioned the landings was limited to observing the world around them. They were ignorant about how shadows, light, and gravity works outside the earth.

5. Entrepreneurship

When I started my first business, I thought I would put Elon Musk to shame. My poor knowledge about entrepreneurship led to such overconfidence. After I spent time on my venture, I realized how vast the field. I had a large gap to cover to make a startup successful.

Many people make a similar attempt believing they can make hundreds of millions by starting a business. Entrepreneurship is like having sex in the shower. It sounds fancy and exciting when you hear about it. Only when you attempt it yourself you realize how hard it is to get it right.

6. Investments

Investment losses

You have heard about different investment opportunities like stocks, real estate, and cryptocurrency.

Take for example, the stock market. When you know nothing about the field, you remain skeptical about investing.

Once you gain a little understanding of the basics, you believe you have mastered the area and invest a massive sum of money. The mistakes cost you badly, and you lose a big chunk of your money. You then vow to never invest in stocks again.

The same applies to cryptocurrency too. Those who know a little about blockchain predict the value will skyrocket to millions. They invest all the money they have. Knowledgable investors spot the risk involved, and if at all they decide to invest, they only put in a small portion of their net worth.

7. Learning a new hobby

When you have never touched a musical instrument, you do not hesitate to say, “I do not know to play.” Once you get over the initial learning curve, you make a Kurt Cobain out of yourself. You believe you can become an expert with the guitar or the piano in a few weeks or months.

The same logic applies to many other areas such as painting, sports, writing, negotiation, reading body language, and so on.

Related article: How to learn any topic quickly using the Feynman technique

How to overcome the Dunning Kruger effect

1. Awareness:

Like any other cognitive bias, fighting the effect starts with awareness. Knowing that lesser knowledge can lead to overconfidence serves as a reality check.

Reading this article must have helped you realize how you are vulnerable to the phenomenon. Next time you are about to make such an assumption, your brain might remind you to hold yourself back.

2. When you know little, learn more

Learn more

If you are new to a field, do not make any impulsive decision. Test the waters and gain more knowledge. If you have started learning about the stock market, invest a minor sum of money until you understand the field better.

You can speed up your learning by spending more time on gaining knowledge. Today, with the growth of the internet and the availability of web tools, you will books and courses at your fingertips. You can gather information and learn faster if you are willing to put in effort and time.

That said, reading alone does not lead to expertise. For example, you can read all you want about swimming, but you will never become a Michael Phelps. The same applies to skills like learning a musical instrument, entrepreneurship, leadership, sales, and so on.

The internet can provide you a ton of theoretical knowledge, but true mastery comes from experimenting with what you know, making mistakes, and getting your hands dirty.

3. Ask someone who has done it before

The best way to subdue your overconfidence is to talk to a person who has a vast experience on the subject. A simple 30-minute conversation with an expert will help you realize how pitiful your knowledge is. Chances are, a brief talk will kick the delusional overconfidence out of you.

A person who has experience can guide you on the mistakes to avoid and the right things to learn. Remain humble and respect his opinion because he has spent more time than you in the area. He definitely knows more than you do.

4. Think of the consequences of failure

Think of consequences

Ask yourself what if your attempt went wrong. How harmful would the consequences be?

Let’s say, for example, you consider yourself a good singer but have never sung in public before. You can try singing in front of a few of your friends as a start. If they appreciate your skills, you can step it up further. If you’re a terrible singer, the worst consequence is facing ridicule from your buddies, which isn’t hard to bear.

Compare that with signing up for a famous show like Britain’s Got Talent when your entire singing career was confined to a bathroom. If you sing like a wolf howls, you might just turn into a viral video on the internet. I know people crave fame, but that isn’t the publicity I would like.

5. Ask for feedback

Try finding out what others think about your skills. If you’re fantastic in an area, people will tell you. If you’re terrible, you may or may not receive genuine feedback depending on who you’re asking.

Though some skills like singing, dancing, playing a musical instrument cannot be quantified, any person can tell you how good or bad you are. Sure, not everyone is qualified to judge a professional event, but anyone can spot a terrible singer or dancer.

Some other skills like art, entrepreneurship, the ability to sell, etc. are hard to judge. Not any Tom Dick or Harry can tell you how competent you are. When you are seeking feedback in such areas, ask only the right people who have some experience in the field.

Wrong feedback is sometimes worse than no feedback.

Related article: How to get feedback using the Johari Window

Research and experiments conducted

Two researchers, Dunning and Kruger performed various experiments and tests in 1999. The effect is named after them. They asked subjects to rate themselves in different areas such as intellectual skills, logical reasoning, grammar, sense of humor, psychology, and so on. After their self-assessment, the researchers asked them to take tests that gave out scores of their real ability.

The results showed interesting statistics. Those who were terrible at identifying what people find funny considered themselves excellent at humor. The people with the bottom 12% scores in logical reasoning rated themselves among the top 38%.

In short, this research in psychology showed that the more incompetent a person was, the higher the chances that he considered himself capable.

Reference: Kruger, Justin & Dunning, David. (2000). Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 77. 1121-34. 10.1037//0022-3514.77.6.1121.

Why does the Dunning Kruger effect occur?

Pea sized brain

The Dunning Kruger effect is caused due to the dual burden on the brain.

When you do not know enough about an area, you are not capable to judge how good or bad your abilities are. The skills you need to get better at are precisely the skills required to judge expertise.

The combined effect of an absence of knowledge and the poor ability of judgement leads to overconfidence.

Flaws in the theory

Though the Dunning Kruger effect works in real life, you cannot always generalize the theory. Your overconfidence in an ability can depend on other factors too:

1. Situation and personality

A reserved person will never step on stage to dance unless he is confident of his skills. The same guy might invest all his money on a new investment opportunity he learned about.

Your personality and the area of expertise have a considerable impact on your extent of overconfidence in the skill.

2. Humility

If you are humble, you will think twice before going all guns. But again, humility can vary in different aspects of life. A person who is modest about his wealth might be delusional about his ability to sing. Depending on the task at hand, humility may or may not affect the Dunning Kruger effect.

3. Risk tendency

A person might be risk-loving or risk-averse. One person might easily decide to quit his job and start his business, while the same decision can send a cold shiver down the spine for some others. Your courage to take risks also influences your overconfidence.

But again, you cannot label a person as risk-loving or risk-averse as a whole. A person who has no fear climbing the Everest might tremble at the decision of high investment. Your tendency to take risks dramatically differs based on how much the outcome matters to you.

Dunning Kruger effect infographic


The Dunning Kruger effect is both hard and easy to spot. On one side, your lack of knowledge on the subject can make you a poor judge of how good or bad your skills are. But you can choose not to make your own judgment by asking yourself how much experience you have.

When you know that you have just started stepping into the waters in a new area, refrain from making any judgment yourself. Let an expert decide your competence or wait until you gain more exposure.

You cannot run before you learn to walk. If you try going that route, you might hurt yourself and fear walking all your life. Life is long enough to wait. So stay calm, have patience, take your time, and get it right.

dunning kruger effect overconfidence

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