The Dunning-Kruger Dunning-Kruger Effect

No, you’re not seeing a misprint or typo. But good on you for not not missing that.


If you’ve never even read the abstract from David Dunning and Justin Kruger’s “Unskilled and Unaware of it” but still insist on referring to the Dunning-Kruger Effect to try and dunk on someone, there’s a good chance you fall under its purview.

Or in simpler terms: if the shoe fits, don’t eat it.

WTF is the Dunning-Kruger Effect?

There’s a line in a W.B.Yates poem about this graph.

In a nutshell—which probably isn’t the best way to reference anything in the domain of Psychology—it’s about as simple as the political opinions of your cousin the YouTube scholar: people in general, suck at estimating how good they are at something. But people who don’t know much, don’t know they don’t know much, because they don’t know enough to know what they don’t know.

Aww you know what, fuck it, here’s the actual abstract:

People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it. Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although their test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd. Several analyses linked this miscalibration to deficits in metacognitive skill, or the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error. Paradoxically, improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities.

Abstract from Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.

Now that you’ve read the abstract, you may or may not be less-dumb, but at least you’re better than an assload% of the people who whip out a reference to the Dunning-Kruger effect in an argument on Facebook, as if it’s just another way of calling someone dumb. More importantly, intelligence notwithstanding, you’re less-ignorant. And in some respects that’s vastly more important of a character attribute than any ascribed to intelligence.

That’s right, being ignorant isn’t a crime. It’s not even a vice a lot of the time considering the overwhelming amount of information generated on a daily basis—the number of things you don’t know, and will never know, grows as the seconds tick by. The trick—especially when it comes to social media—is to know when you’re ignorant, and shutting the hell up on the topic until you’re up to speed on it.

Just say “Dumbass”

Look, we get it, the culture war is always escalating and you need better weapons to fight it—regardless of whether you’re on the side of forward progress, or on the side of dragging our species back into the trees to fear the darkness and fling shit at each other. But if you really want to call someone stupid, just fucking call them stupid. There are a lot of great ways to do this, created a long time ago specifically to address the situation you’re probably dealing with right now. Use one of them instead. Trying to make yourself look like some sort of galaxy brained-potato using an academic term you don’t have the best grasp on is only going to backfire and make you look dumber than the idiot you’re arguing with.

If you’ve actually taken a course on cognitive psychology and/or can read academic papers without your eyes glazing over, you’re probably okay. But you’re not the best person to judge that.

Sources and More Info

Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999).Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of personality and social psychology77(6), 1121

Ehrlinger, J., Johnson, K., Banner, M., Dunning, D., & Kruger, J. (2008). Why the unskilled are unaware: Further explorations of (absent) self-insight among the incompetent. Organizational behavior and human decision processes, 105(1), 98-121.

I don't write articles for people who read the New York Times or Nature, I write articles for people who read microwave pizza instructions more than once but are significantly more dangerous as a group. Head Knuckle at Bullshido.
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