Why I’m awesome: The Dunning-Kruger effect

Superhero boy with a fake cape symbolising Dunning Kruger Effect

I have finally found the explanation for irrational overconfidence and, perhaps, much of the hype and bombast on the internet: the Dunning-Kruger effect.

(Not to be confused with the Müller-Fokker Effect.)

I wrote this article a long time ago on the Articulate Marketing blog. I thought it deserved another airing because it so obviously helps to explain a lot that’s going wrong in the world in the last few years.

The science of false self-confidence

The original research says:

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.

In short, people grossly overestimate their abilities and self-knowledge is a learnable and useful skill.

Genuinely smart people don’t describe themselves as a ‘like, really smart’ and as a ‘genius’, as James Fallows explains. He makes the obvious point that Meryl Streep doesn’t ask ‘Have you seen my awards?’ and Roger Federer doesn’t introduce himself with ‘You know, I’m quite graceful and gifted.’ In fact,  [smart people] ‘know what they don’t know. This to me is the most consistent marker of real intelligence.’

My question is: does knowing your limits help you overcome them better than blithely assuming they don’t exist?

(Thanks to Fencing Bear for tracking down the original article and to Tom at the Writer Underground for linking the concept to internet bozosity.)

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