The Dunning-Kruger Effect: Why incompetence is blind to itself.

“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Bertrand Russell

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”
Charles Darwin

“It is one of the essential features of such incompetence that the person so afflicted is incapable of knowing that he is incompetent.”
William Ian Miller

I recently stumbled across an article on the Dunning-Kruger Effect, a theory of psychology that claims, “…the skills that engender competence in a particular domain are often the very same skills necessary to evaluate competence in that domain-one’s own or anyone else’s…” What this means in ordinary terms, is that while we all overestimate our own knowledge and skills, the less competent we are at something the more will will overestimate our abilities.

The original article is Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in Recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessment, and it is well worth a read. The authors conducted a number of experiments on that paradigm of Guinea pigs, the undergraduate psychology student. They gave them tests of social skills (recognizing how funny jokes were compared to a standard of professional comedians’ assessment) and cognitive skills (English grammar and logical reasoning), and they evaluated the accuracy of the subjects’ self-assessment compared with their actual performance. Those in the bottom quartile were most likely to overestimate their skills by the largest amount.

Subsequent tests and analyses indicated that this inaccurate self-assessment was tied to the lack of the same skills needed to perform well on the tests. Those subjects in the top quartile consistently underestimated their performance, but when exposed to representative samples of other subjects’ tests, these top performers were able to adjust their self-assessment appropriately, whereas the bottom quartile subjects did not correct their inaccurate self-assessment based on being able to see directly how their peers performed.

How is this relevant to medicine? Well, in the obvious way that the very people who most need to improve their knowledge and skills and those who are least likely to be able to see that they need this improvement. We all rationalize our failures under the pressure of cognitive dissonance, and we all assess ourselves more charitably than we assess others. But the Dunning-Kruger Effect suggests that those of us with the weakest skills, whether it be in medicine specifically or in the kinds of critical thinking necessary to separate truth from nonsense, we are also the least likely to be able to recognize our own deficiencies.

There is some good news, however. The study also looked at whether or not the least competent subjects could improve the accuracy of their self-assessment. As it turns out, if you make them more competent, by training them on the skills they are being tested on, they also become better able to accurately gauge their own performance. That’s a strong argument for widespread teaching of critical thinking skills and the skeptical outlook, since it suggests we can do better in both our assessments of the world around us and our judgments of our own capabilities.

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8 Responses to The Dunning-Kruger Effect: Why incompetence is blind to itself.

  1. Liz says:

    Excellent, excellent post. Looking forward to reading the article you cited.

  2. “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”>>>>>

    I think thats true but remember

    Arthur C. Clarke’s Fourth Law : It has
    yet to be proven that intelligence has
    any survival value.

    because of the way our minds work stupid and cocksure may at times help us survive better than intelligent and full of doubt.

  3. skeptvet says:

    I diisagree. The reason we have the adaptation of rational though is because it had a survival value for our ancestors. Of course the selective advantage or disadvanatage of particular traits depend on context, but from a strictly evolutionary point of view, humans have been an astoundingly successful species due to our evolution of intelligence. One can speculate that we are a dead end in the loing run, of course, but at this point that’s just speciulation. There seems to me abundant evidence that intelligence is superior to stupidity in most circumstances.

  4. There seems to me abundant evidence that intelligence is superior to stupidity in most circumstances.>>>>

    I would need to see an alien to know for sure. It seems to me they would have made first contact with us by now.

  5. Bartimaeus says:

    @ art malernee;

    even if there is survival value to being stupid and cocksure, the whole point of science, skepticism and critical thinking, and all the benefits and advances of rationalism over the last few hundred years would certainly indicate some value to rationalism. Sure, it is not perfect, but rationalism rather than ignorance and arrogance is the only thing that I can see that will solve the problems we face, no matter if the problem comes from ancient superstition or the excesses of human intelligence and technology.

  6. Anon says:

    Obviously, this applies to everyone else and not to me.

  7. chabuka says:

    Explaining perfectly the rise in right-wing tea-baggers, homophobes, xenophobes, and other right-wing “white supremacy” Christian/militia groups….the “Dunning-Kruger affect” is a real National Institute/Cornell Institute study

  8. Calligula says:

    I’d humbly make the point that many of we humans tend to aspire to excellence as best we can,
    Many manage to last for four or more decades in our chosen field while others take a more short term view.
    That sort ‘get in’ while they can, often causing the rest of us immense grief.
    Meanwhile they go on to something else and cause turmoil there.

    Yes. I’m talking about politicians and other sorts of snake-oil salesmen.

    I suppose that there should be a place for all of us but I have to say that I’m somewhat disconcerted that poltroons and adventurers so consistently inhabit a field of human endeavour that should be populated by those more cautious, more diplomatic and those more up top of the Dunning/Kruger scale.

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