The Dunning-Kruger Effect

May 18, 2020

People with lower levels of competence don’t have the ability to recognize their own incompetence. They suffer from a cognitive bias known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. As a consequence of the bias, they falsely believe they are smarter than they really are. They cannot objectively evaluate their competence in the absence of self-awareness of their own thought processes. This veil of illusion gives birth to an inflated sense of superiority among low-skilled people. Consequently, we have a tendency to overestimate our capabilities in the presence of poor self-awareness.

This idea dates as far back as Ancient Greeks. The concept of Hubris is a recurrent theme in Greek mythology in which characters suffer from it. It is described as the idea of being blinded by absolute arrogance and pride which marks their inevitable downfall. Protagonists of such mythology bite off more than once can chew and call their inevitable doom. They do so because they are out of touch with reality. In all these Greek fables, characters’ judgments were shrouded because they couldn’t seem to reconcile with their bruised egos.


Grandiose delusions stem from a similar conception of self. The prospect of seeing oneself in heroic images in our respective worlds is too enticing to shut one’s eyes to. Deep down, we all have a burning desire to create our legacy and leave a dent in the universe. At the same time, being critical of self is essential for growth. This pitfall in disguise robs us of that ability. One attributing factor to this bias is people often tend to evaluate themselves from a subjective point of view. We have no way of recognizing the gaping holes in our abilities without an objective framework or scale for evaluation. We need a set of criteria based on which to assess and evaluate our knowledge. People claiming expertise on subjects without a deep understanding is an example of the effects of this cognitive bias. Moreover, we have an inclination to place ourselves on a higher pedestal in the company of a less capable group. It is known as the Big fish little pond effect.

Another idea is that there is no such thing as general expertise. It’s an oxymoron. Expertise cannot be magically transferred to other non-related subjects. A distinguished expert in consumer behaviorism cannot become a self-acclaimed expert in evolutionary biology overnight. It is important to recognize when one is out of depth regarding their knowledge. This ability to pause and reflect and be more critical of one’s work further grows credibility. Ultracrepidarianism is the idea of expressing opinions and giving advice on subjects outside of one’s knowledge. People must recognize the boundaries and limitations of one’s knowledge in order to climb the ladder of competency. It is a necessary step to become thought leaders in their respective their respective fields and become thought leaders.

A realistic assessment of self from time to time is therefore necessary. Approaching matters in a more holistic way broadens our minds. Intricacies and nuances of a subject progressively reveal themselves as we dive deeper into extensive research. We can only find what else there is to know by investing considerable time in deep research. It will allow us to break down different aspects of a subject. Utilizing The Feynman Technique is a really useful approach to learning a new subject. Long hours of uninterrupted research gradually fills the gap in our knowledge. However, we should not commit to an idea in a manner we fail to recognize the merits of other arguments. We do not want to lose the ability to weigh in evidence for different arguments and ideas. If we are not careful, we risk falling into yet another trap of Confirmation Bias.

The four stages of competence come in the shape of a pyramid. The four stages are Unconscious Incompetence, Conscious Incompetence, Conscious Competence, Unconscious Competence. This pyramid can be used as a guiding framework when testing the merits of arguments. It can be used to assess the strength of an argument in the absence of any internal and external influences. It may show us the road to progress from incompetence to competence in a particular subject.

The lowest level is when we are oblivious of our own incompetence. When we are aware of our shortcomings, we can only then work towards gaining competence. This will require us to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills to progress towards the next level. The ultimate objective is to understand a subject like the back of our hands. When we are at that level, we can make informed decisions without consciously thinking about it. It almost becomes our second nature. Understanding the Dunning-Kruger effect is therefore essential for introspection and self-improvement.

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