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The Dunning-Kruger Effect: Why You May Believe You're Smarter than you Actually Are

By Blake Reichenbach

The Dunning-Kruger Effect: Why You May Believe You’re Smarter than you Actually Are

Have you ever been in a situation where someone– or perhaps even you– started to learn something new and within a short time found yourself feeling incredibly confident in your abilities? If so, you more than likely also noticed that before long your confidence started to decline.

The less people know about something, the more likely they are to overestimate their knowledge or skills within that field. Think about it this way: let’s say that you just started a new job, and you’ve been learning the ropes pretty quickly. You’ve got the basic tasks down, and you start to feel like you’ve got this — after all, you’re less than a year into the role and you’re already doing the things you need to do. And so, you continue on doing what you’re supposed to be doing, and you’re probably even getting better at those tasks. And then you cross the year or year-and-a-half mark. Suddenly, you start to feel like you’re slipping underwater. The tasks you’ve been doing day in and day out may feel like they’re getting more complicated or that you’re just drowning. What you thought was your bread and butter is suddenly confounding and you realize that there’s a lot you still don’t know, and your confidence begins to dip.

Perhaps you’re just in a slump, or perhaps there’s something deeper going on. After all, what I’m describing is a pretty common phenomenon. It’s not some new symptom of the modern workplace. In fact, in “As You Like It” Shakespeare references a saying that underscores this exact idea: “A fool thinks himself to be wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

376 years after Shakespeare wrote “As You Like It,” this tendency for those lacking experience to feel over-confident, and those with moderate experience to feel less confident, was given a name. In a landmark study, researchers David Dunning and Justin Kruger explored and mapped out this phenomenon, and their names were lended to it: the Dunning-Kruger Effect.


The graph above represents a the classic illustration of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

As it shows, when someone is still in the early or novice stages of something, their confidence is often quite high. As they progressively get more experienced, however, their confidence drops. When they reach a certain tenure within their field, their confidence begins to go back up.

This is important to keep in mind for a few reasons. As stated in Very Well Mind,

[…] deficits in skill and expertise create a two-pronged problem. First, these deficits cause people to perform poorly in the domain in which they are incompetent. Secondly, their erroneous and deficient knowledge makes them unable to recognize their mistakes.

In a nutshell, the confidence that comes with being a beginner can dip into the territory of delusion. It can cause you to perform poorly and to be incapable of recognizing where your shortcomings lie.

Additionally, understanding the Dunning-Kruger Effect can be incredibly insightful when you start to feel burnt out or like you’re losing confidence in an area in which you once excelled.

Finally, understanding the Dunning-Kruger Effect can be instrumental in reclaiming your expertise or accelerating your own growth.

Recognizing when the Dunning-Kruger Effect is Holding You Back

There are two telltale signs that the Dunning-Kruger effect is at play.

  1. You’re incredibly confident despite being a beginner.
  2. You’re lacking confidence despite being rather experienced.

While these may be broad definitions and make it feel like you don’t want to either be confident or lacking confidence, it’s important to keep in mind that the Dunning-Kruger Effect is a byproduct of perspective. When you’re feeling boosts of confidence or feeling like you’re in a slump, take a step back to get some perspective on why you’re feeling the way that you feel.

Whichever camp you’re in– confidence or insecurity– perhaps the quickest way to combat it is to seek out feedback, especially from someone else who is competent in their field. Giving and receiving feedback is an art form that can be hard to master, so if you find a companion with whom you are neither having your ego inflated or your confidence torn down, hold onto them and try to nurture a long-term working relationship. Having an outside perspective can take you out your tunnel vision, and can give you insights that you wouldn’t have been able to uncover on your own.

Pretend you walk into a room and see a wall with instructions written on it, and below the instructions, there are two small holes. The hole on the left has a small lip on it, and a ping pong ball is sitting on the lip. The instructions tell you to move the ball from the hole on the left to the hole on the right, and if you move all of them, you’ll receive $100,000. You can’t see around to the other side of the wall, so you don’t know how many ping pong balls there will be, but it’s easy to move them from one hole to the other, so you start. It’s so easy at first that you can’t imagine why someone would be so stupid as to pass up on the opportunity to get $100,000 from such an easy task.

You move balls from the left to the right for several minutes. You can only take out one ball and the next one won’t be dispensed until the previous one has been placed in the hole on the right. Those several minutes quickly become several hours, which could easily become several days… if you kept it up. But, after several hours, you’re feeling disheartened and thinking that the task will never end.

Getting an outside opinion when you believe your degree of confidence is a byproduct of the Dunning-Kruger Effect is like having a friend who can get around the wall and see what’s going on on the other side. He comes back and either tells you that there are only a couple of balls remaining on the left side, or he may tell you that there’s a mechanism that feeds the balls from the right side to the left causing an endless loop of balls being dispensed on one side after being placed in the other.

You may feel good or feel defeated once you get that information from your friend, but either way, you know more than you previously did and can make a better-informed decision about whether or not to continue with the task at hand. The same is true for getting feedback from a friend or trusted community; it grants you the perspective to make a better decision and to figure out where you should be putting your energy.

Using this Knowledge to Accelerate your Growth

As you venture into a particular field, whether that’s an area of study, skill, or work, in addition to recognizing the Dunning-Kruger Effect at play, you can also position your awareness as a way to grow more rapidly.

The method for doing so is surprisingly simple: consistently look for new opportunities to learn.

Several months before I first read about the Dunning-Kruger Effect, I wrote myself a short mantra on the dry erase board in my office. In scratchy black letters, it read “Don’t fear being wrong. Fear feeling like you don’t have more to learn.” At the time, it was a notion I was working on as an antidote to my sense of perfectionism and was one of my first forays into exploring the notion of expertise.

At the time, I put my emphasis on the first part of the mantra. In light of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, however, the second part– feeling as if you don’t have more to learn– is actually just as important.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect can have a disorienting effect in which you either have so much to learn that you don’t know where to begin, or you don’t know what you don’t know and think you know more than you actually do. By consistently asking questions and seeking out opportunities to learn, you’ll be able to combat this disorienting effect and stay on track.

If you don’t know where to begin, start by digging in deeper into something you already know. For example, when I first started doing some work in web design, I had a basic understanding of how to troubleshoot design issues on a pre-existing website and felt like I was a design god; I even got a reputation on my team as the go-to person for design questions. But, I wouldn’t have even thought to attempt to build a page from scratch– starting from a pre-existing framework and making something pretty from that was my way of keeping the training wheels on the bike.

I knew I was pretty good with design but didn’t know what I still needed to learn in order to get better, so rather than seeking breadth in the field, I sought depth. I invested time in the skills that I was using to fix customers’ websites to tweak my own website. As I continued to make improvements, I started to notice links and methods in the resources I was using to other techniques. For example, I was trying to fix an issue with the way blog posts were sized using CSS and in the article, I was referencing, there was a link to a way to do the same thing using jQuery. Where I once would have feared to dip my toes, I decided to dive in. CSS was a comfort zone for me, but by getting more depth in that particular area, I ultimately found greater breadth as well.

The same process transfers well from web design to other skills and can be a stellar means of overcoming the Dunning-Kruger Effect to your advantage and accelerating your growth.

Tags: Lifestyle, Men's Journal, Expertise

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