Cognitive Bias - The Dunning–Kruger effect

From WBro Damien, Editor and Alumni of the Freemasons Leadership Program 2018

(The core idea in Freemasonry is trying to improve ourselves as individuals. Critical to that are self reflection and self correction. This article might help that pursuit and/or our organization. I hope it does not turn out to be an embarrassing case of irony! But I am always willing to test my Working Tools, are you? Ed.)

It is twenty years since the social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger published the paper titled "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments” (1999). The phenomenon they described is known as “The Dunning–Kruger effect”.

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias where people over estimate their cognitive ability. Simply, they think they are smarter and more knowledgeable than they are, leading to a mistaken, but often firmly held belief, that they hold expertise in a subject they know little about. It is related to the cognitive bias of illusory superiority and comes from the inability of people to recognize their lack of ability. Without self-awareness, people cannot objectively evaluate their competence or incompetence.

The Dunning–Kruger effect leads to unskilled people, particularly leaders, reaching erroneous conclusions and making poor decisions. Their lack of self-insight denies them the metacognitive ability to recognize their mistakes, rating their ability as above average, much higher than it actually is. This creates a false sense of self-confidence that often leaves them fixed on faulted ideas, beliefs and plans.

Many truisms like “The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know” are often quoted when discussing the Dunning-Kruger effect;

"One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision." - Bertrand Russell


"Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge." - Charles Darwin

In the words of one article, Dunning and Kruger “put data to what has been known by philosophers since Socrates, who supposedly said something along the lines of "the only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing." The blind cannot see darkness, or more bluntly, “fools cannot recognize their own foolishness”.

The perilous thing about those affected by the Dunning-Kruger effect is that it leads to a high level of self-confidence. For autocratic or absolute leaders, this confidence can lead to disaster.

The Dunning–Kruger effect can even be deadly. In a Washington Post article of 12 Jan 2019, Dunning says the effect is particularly dangerous when someone with influence or the means to do harm doesn't have anyone who can speak honestly to them about their mistakes. He noted several plane crashes that could have been avoided if crew had spoken up to an overconfident pilot. "You get into a situation where people can be too deferential to the people in charge,"

Dunning further explained. "You have to have people around you that are willing to tell you you're making an error." Dunning's follow-up research shows the poorest performers are also the least likely to accept criticism or show interest in self improvement.

According to several articles, for a given skill or topic, self-proclaimed experts suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect will:

· overestimate their own skill & understanding,

· fail to recognize genuine skill and expertise in others,

· fail to recognize their own mistakes the extremity of their inadequacy.

· be fixed on the faulted opinions & solutions they form, even after being confronted with reality.

Droll statistics are given in related studies; test takers who scored as low as the 10th percentile ranking themselves near the 70th percentile, but my favourite saw 90% of respondents rating themselves above average. That’s mathematically highly unlikely. In another, approximately 90 percent of respondents claimed that they had at least some knowledge of the made up terms.

Such people are least likely to know what they were talking about but believed they knew as much as the experts.

A very important fact to remember about most cognitive biases, including the Dunning-Kruger effect, is that they don’t just happen to some; they can affect all of us. It can happen to me. It can happen to you.

So, how can we overcome the Dunning-Kruger effect?

Keep an open mind, test your assumptions and assume you have more to learn and keep learning. The more you know, the more likely you will recognise that you still have a lot to learn. Listen. Compare. Research. Fact check.

Use information and don’t confuse a small collection of facts with data. And certainly don’t confuse either with information. Information is data organised and given context, data is (hopefully a large) collection of facts and not information itself. That it rained last Wednesday is a fact, but it is not data. Data would be the record of on how many Wednesdays it rains over a decade, however, even if it has rained every Wednesday in the data set that it does not mean it will rain next Wednesday. The only real information this gives is that it has rained. (A great book related to this idea is “The Black Swan” Taleb 2007).

Knowledge is derived from lots of information and it is only knowledge, external referencing, experience, testing and improving which leads to expertise. Talent and Intelligence helps too!

Feedback can be good, but also be careful where you seek it. Asking peers about your performance can be useful, but remember other cognitive biases such as Groupthink (the drive for group consensus results in faulty decision making) and Confirmation Bias (interpreting and searching for data and information to confirm our existent beliefs). Also noting the filter and restraint of politeness.

While it can sometimes be difficult to hear constructive criticism, it can provide valuable insight and is better feedback than affirmation. Affirmation, (Confirmation & Group Think etc) will generally only make you FEEL better. Constructive criticism and skepticism will MAKE you better.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is not just about realizing how dumb we can be, is about basic human psychology and cognitive biases. Dunning-Kruger applies to everyone.

The solution is self examination, widely referencing facts and information - critical thinking, applying a process of logic and empiricism, testing outcomes and… humility. Or in other words, scientific skepticism.

And always remember, as the old saying goes, a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing.